Customized growth charts: rationale, validation and clinical benefits

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Abstract

Appropriate standards for the assessment of fetal growth and birthweight are central to good clinical care, and have become even more important with increasing evidence that growth-related adverse outcomes are potentially avoidable. Standards need to be evidence based and validated against pregnancy outcome and able to demonstrate utility and effectiveness. A review of proposals by the Intergrowth consortium to adopt their single international standard finds little support for the claim that the cases that it identifies as small are due to malnutrition or stunting, and substantial evidence that there is normal physiologic variation between different countries and ethnic groups. It is possible that the one-size-fits-all standard ends up fitting no one and could be harmful if implemented. An alternative is the concept of country-specific charts that can improve the association between abnormal growth and adverse outcome. However, such standards ignore individual physiologic variation that affects fetal growth, which exists in any heterogeneous population and exceeds intercountry differences. It is therefore more logical to adjust for the characteristics of each mother, taking her ethnic origin and her height, weight, and parity into account, and to set a growth and birthweight standard for each pregnancy against which actual growth can be assessed. A customized standard better reflects adverse pregnancy outcome at both ends of the fetal size spectrum and has increased clinicians’ confidence in growth assessment, while providing reassurance when abnormal size merely represents physiologic variation. Rollout in the United Kingdom has proceeded as part of the comprehensive Growth Assessment Protocol (GAP), and has resulted in a steady increase in antenatal detection of babies who are at risk because of fetal growth restriction. This in turn has been accompanied by a year-on-year drop in stillbirth rates to their lowest ever levels in England. A global version of customized growth charts with over 100 ethnic origin categories is being launched in 2018, and will provide an individualized, yet universally applicable, standard for fetal growth.

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