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Review article: Biomedical intelligence

Vol. 141 No. 4142 (2011)

Perinatal care at the limit of viability between 22 and 26 completed weeks of gestation in Switzerland

  • Alama El
  • I Hösli
  • M Nelle
  • D Surbek
  • J Wisser
  • R Zimmermann
  • JC Fauchère
  • AC Truttmann
Cite this as:
Swiss Med Wkly. 2011;141:w13280


Perinatal care of pregnant women at high risk for preterm delivery and of preterm infants born at the limit of viability (22–26 completed weeks of gestation) requires a multidisciplinary approach by an experienced perinatal team. Limited precision in the determination of both gestational age and foetal weight, as well as biological variability may significantly affect the course of action chosen in individual cases.

The decisions that must be taken with the pregnant women and on behalf of the preterm infant in this context are complex and have far-reaching consequences. When counselling pregnant women and their partners, neonatologists and obstetricians should provide them with comprehensive information in a sensitive and supportive way to build a basis of trust. The decisions are developed in a continuing dialogue between all parties involved (physicians, midwives, nursing staff and parents) with the principal aim to find solutions that are in the infant’s and pregnant woman's best interest.

Knowledge of current gestational age-specific mortality and morbidity rates and how they are modified by prenatally known prognostic factors (estimated foetal weight, sex, exposure or nonexposure to antenatal corticosteroids, single or multiple births) as well as the application of accepted ethical principles form the basis for responsible decision-making. Communication between all parties involved plays a central role.

The members of the interdisciplinary working group suggest that the care of preterm infants with a gestational age between 22 0/7 and 23 6/7 weeks should generally be limited to palliative care. Obstetric interventions for foetal indications such as Caesarean section delivery are usually not indicated. In selected cases, for example, after 23 weeks of pregnancy have been completed and several of the above mentioned prenatally known prognostic factors are favourable or well informed parents insist on the initiation of life-sustaining therapies, active obstetric interventions for foetal indications and provisional intensive care of the neonate may be reasonable.

In preterm infants with a gestational age between 24 0/7 and 24 6/7 weeks, it can be difficult to determine whether the burden of obstetric interventions and neonatal intensive care is justified given the limited chances of success of such a therapy. In such cases, the individual constellation of prenatally known factors which impact on prognosis can be helpful in the decision making process with the parents.

In preterm infants with a gestational age between 25 0/7 and 25 6/7 weeks, foetal surveillance, obstetric interventions for foetal indications and neonatal intensive care measures are generally indicated. However, if several prenatally known prognostic factors are unfavourable and the parents agree, primary non-intervention and neonatal palliative care can be considered.

All pregnant women with threatening preterm delivery or premature rupture of membranes at the limit of viability must be transferred to a perinatal centre with a level III neonatal intensive care unit no later than 23 0/7 weeks of gestation, unless emergency delivery is indicated. An experienced neonatology team should be involved in all deliveries that take place after 23 0/7 weeks of gestation to help to decide together with the parents if the initiation of intensive care measures appears to be appropriate or if preference should be given to palliative care (i.e., primary non-intervention). In doubtful situations, it can be reasonable to initiate intensive care and to admit the preterm infant to a neonatal intensive care unit (i.e., provisional intensive care). The infant’s clinical evolution and additional discussions with the parents will help to clarify whether the life-sustaining therapies should be continued or withdrawn.

Life support is continued as long as there is reasonable hope for survival and the infant’s burden of intensive care is acceptable. If, on the other hand, the health care team and the parents have to recognise that in the light of a very poor prognosis the burden of the currently used therapies has become disproportionate, intensive care measures are no longer justified and other aspects of care (e.g., relief of pain and suffering) are the new priorities (i.e., redirection of care). If a decision is made to withhold or withdraw life-sustaining therapies, the health care team should focus on comfort care for the dying infant and support for the parents.


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