What ‘placenta insufficiency’ means for a pregnant woman

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When an obstetrician (OB) uses a complex term to diagnose a condition in pregnancy, it can be downright scary. After all, the average woman, whether having her first or 10th baby, has only a basic knowledge of medical terminology. Hearing a doctor mention a phrase that is difficult to even pronounce can cause immediate stress and anxiety. One such term that as many as 10% of all pregnant women hear from their OBs is ”placenta insufficiency.” When such a diagnosis is made, the momma in question has some decisions to make. It’s critical that a woman who has received this diagnosis understand exactly what’s at stake and what her options are. The primary goal, of course, is to keep mom and baby as safe and healthy as possible.

A placenta is an organ that is circular but flattened in shape. It implants to the inside of the uterus. From it, through the umbilical cord, all nutrients flow from mother to baby, during pregnancy. The term ”insufficiency” implies that something is inadequate, not up to par, not fulfilling whatever it is supposed to be doing. Therefore, if an OB diagnoses placenta insufficiency, it means that a mother’s placenta is not getting enough nutrients to the baby in the womb.

What causes placenta insufficiency?

The obstetrics industry understands that when a woman has placenta insufficiency, her infant is not being properly nourished in the womb. OBs also know that this usually means one of two things. Sometimes, the placenta has not implanted properly and is in a precarious position, which is impeding its function. Other times, the placenta has failed to grow because it is damaged. In either case, this organ that is integral to a baby’s health and well-being in the womb is not doing its job right.

What medical science is not real sure about is how or why this condition occurs. They believe that certain maternal factors may increase the risk for placenta insufficiency. Such factors include diabetes, smoking, drinking alcohol or drug use or high blood pressure, which create a propensity toward the condition. There are numerous other maternal health issues that increase the risk, as well.

Risks to baby if placenta insufficiency occurs

Both mother and infant are at risk for adverse health during pregnancy, labor or delivery, if placenta insufficiency occurs. A baby needs the nutrients from his or her mother’s placenta to survive and thrive. Lack of nutrients places baby at risk for failure to grow. In medical terms, this condition is known as fetal growth restriction or FGR. During prenatal visits, an OB monitors a baby’s growth, usually during an ultrasound. If the baby measures smaller than average for the gestational week, placenta insufficiency may be the cause. A baby might also have problems eating and growing after birth.

Even more serious issues may arise for a newborn who has suffered insufficient nutrition in the womb. Bleeding on the brain, oxygen deprivation and respiratory distress are some of the most severe conditions that can occur. Because placenta insufficiency can cause preterm labor, these conditions are a great risk.

Risks to maternal health and safety

A woman with placenta insufficiency is at risk for serious complications, such as pre-eclampsia or placental abruption (when placenta tears away from uterine wall). Both of these conditions can become life-threatening to a woman giving birth. There are typically several options available when an OB has diagnosed a pregnant woman with placenta insufficiency.

If she is at or near her due date, she might choose to wait things out, as long as the baby is still moving around. Most women opt against this choice, however, because they know that their babies are not getting enough nutrients from the placenta. If it is medically allowed at the time, an OB can perform an induction. Most obstetrical experts and midwives agree that induction should never be done before 39 weeks of gestation have passed. If a baby stops moving or shows signs of fetal distress, an OB might order an emergency C-section delivery. If gestation is less than 37 weeks, an OB will undoubtedly want to try to keep the baby in the womb as long as possible.

Frequent ultrasounds and close monitoring

If mom and her medical team determine that it is best to try to sustain baby in the womb, they will undergo frequent ultrasounds to measure baby’s growth. A woman with placenta insufficiency may also be asked to chart her baby’s movements each day. If movement slows or ceases, the OB should be immediately notified.

Being proactive as an obstetrics patient enables a woman to maintain a sense of control over her own health and safety, as well as her child’s. The more you learn about a condition with which you have been diagnosed, the better able to make informed decisions you will be, when the time comes.


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