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Fetal Heart Rate Points to Later Child Development

It gives clues to neurological progress in toddler years, study finds

FRIDAY, Nov. 16 (HealthDay News) -- Checking on fetal heart-rate patterns can offer insight into how a child's nervous system will develop through its toddler years, a U.S. study finds.

Johns Hopkins and U.S. National Institutes of Health researchers checked fetal heart rate and variability -- the degree to which heart rate increases and decreases within a specific time period -- six times from 20 weeks through 38 weeks of gestation in 137 women with normal pregnancies.

When the children born to the women were between 24 months and 36 months old, the researchers assessed their mental, motor and language abilities.

Greater variation in fetal heart rate at about 28 weeks gestation predicted better performance on a standardized developmental exam at age two, and better language skills at 30 months, said the study, which is published in the November/December issue of the journal Child Development.

Fetuses that had more rapid gains in heart rate variation beginning at 20 weeks gestation had quicker progression through childhood mental, motor and language milestones than children who had slower fetal gains in heart-rate variations.

According to the researchers, the findings suggest that the basis of individual differences in children's development begins during gestation.

"Further demonstration that these and other indicators of fetal functioning supply important information about the developing nervous system will enrich our understanding of the importance of the prenatal period of life," study lead author Janet DiPietro, a professor in the department of population, family and reproductive health, and associate dean for research at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said in a prepared statement.

"In turn, such knowledge can contribute to the formation of strategies focused on improving prenatal functioning in these arenas by facilitating pregnancy well-being. However, since current obstetric care already routinely evaluates heart rate patterning as an indicator of fetal distress, pregnant women do not need to seek out additional information about their baby's heart rate from their providers," DiPietro said.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more about child development.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: Society for Research in Child Development, news release, Nov. 15, 2007

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