Preventing Preeclampsia
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January 15, 2013

Mum's good night's sleep vital for fetal development

A leading medical researcher has called for a greater emphasis on the treatment of sleep disorders in pregnant women following research suggesting they could contribute to premature deliveries and low birth weight.

Colin Sullivan, a professor in medicine at the University of Sydney, said quality of sleep during pregnancy could have a bigger impact on fetuses than thought.

Professor Sullivan and Annemarie Hennessy, dean of medicine at the University of Western Sydney, led research to find out whether treatment of sleep disorders in pregnant women could boost fetal health. The team reported its results in the latest edition of the US journal Sleep.

The team monitored the breathing of 40 pregnant women as they slept and the movement of their fetuses. Half of the subjects had pre-eclampsia, a complication in pregnancy that can cause low birth weight and premature deliveries.

Pre-eclampsia affects about 8 per cent of pregnancies, amounting to tens of thousands of cases in Australia each year, Professor Sullivan said.

Scientists have yet to pin down its causes but know it raises the woman's blood pressure, often to dangerously high levels. The research was interested in the sleep disorder accompanying the condition, which develops late in pregnancy.

The researchers found the group with pre-eclampsia had abnormal breathing during sleep compared with the 20 women in a control group without the condition. The fetuses of women with the condition were far less active overnight than those of women with normal pregnancies. The fetus's kicks, turns and breathing efforts are seen as a gauge of its health.

Professor Sullivan said disordered breathing probably reduced blood supply to the fetus. "The fetus protects itself by reducing movements," he said.

The researchers monitored the movement of fetuses of a further 10 women with pre-eclampsia over two nights.

On the first night, the women slept naturally. On the second, they slept with the aid of the continuous positive airway pressure system, a breathing assistance device invented by Professor Sullivan and commercialised by ResMed. The system is used worldwide to treat sleep apnea by conveying air at constant pressure to a mask.

Use of the CPAP system increased fetal activity greatly.

"By intervening in the sleep disorder, we can increase the chance of maintaining the pregnancy for longer, improving fetal wellbeing," Professor Sullivan said.

Another invention, Sonomat, a device to monitor patients' vital signs as they sleep, won Professor Sullivan the health category prize in the 2012 The Australian Innovation Challenge awards.

The device, a mat impregnated with tiny sensors which lies on the mattress, can gather data on women and their fetuses simultaneously.

> Read full article on The Australian website
> Read original article on the SLEEP Journal website

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