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What is Placental Insufficiency?

By Jacquelyn Gilchrist
Updated May 17, 2024
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Placental insufficiency, which may also be called placental dysfunction, is a possible complication of pregnancy. A woman’s placenta develops naturally while pregnant to feed the fetus. Placental insufficiency occurs when the placenta is unable to provide enough nutrients and oxygen to the fetus.

A woman with this condition will not typically notice any signs or symptoms, however, there may be a couple of clues. If this is not a first pregnancy, the size of the uterus may be smaller than it was in previous pregnancies. It is also possible for the baby to move around less than usual.

Placental insufficiency may occur due to the mother’s habits or medical conditions. For example, women who smoke, consume alcohol, or take recreational drugs during pregnancy may develop this condition. Diabetes and high blood pressure can also cause placental insufficiency.

Sometimes, this condition may occur independently of the mother’s health or lifestyle choices. Women who are carrying twins are at risk, due to the possibility of the placenta not growing large enough to support two babies. It is also possible for the placenta to break away from the surface of the womb, to fail to attach to its surface, or to bleed.

A doctor will typically diagnose placental insufficiency during normal prenatal checkups. He will perform ultrasound tests to monitor how the baby is growing. Evaluating the baby’s heart rate is also routine. At about the midpoint of the pregnancy, the doctor will begin to measure the uterus. If any of these tests are abnormal, placental dysfunction may be suspected.

The treatment for this condition can depend on the underlying cause or contributing factors. If the mother has diabetes or high blood pressure, the doctor may advise an acceptable plan to treat these conditions during pregnancy. Mothers who consume harmful substances during pregnancy should discontinue doing so, in addition to receiving addiction counseling and treatment. Women may also be advised to rest in bed until giving birth.

Placental insufficiency may cause serious problems with the baby’s growth and development. Babies who are deprived of adequate nutrients and oxygen are unable to develop normally. They may suffer from a low birth weight, which may contribute to complications during delivery, such as abnormal bleeding. Newborns may need to be delivered by Cesarean section. The child is also at long-term risk for other complications, such as seizures, cerebral palsy, and learning disabilities.

To help avoid placental insufficiency and other complications of pregnancy, women should seek prenatal care as early as possible. Pregnant mothers should avoid the consumption of harmful substances, and follow a healthy diet plan as recommended by their doctors. A woman who has other medical conditions should disclose them to the doctor immediately for proper treatment of both mother and baby.

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