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What is Cardiotocography?

Cardiotocography (CTG) is used in pregnancy to monitor both the foetal heart as well as the contractions of the uterus. It is usually only used in the 3rd trimester. It’s purpose is to monitor foetal well-being & allow early detection of foetal distress. An abnormal CTG indicates the need for more invasive investigations & ultimately may lead to emergency caesarian section.

How it works

The device used in cardiotocography is known as a cardiotocograph.

It involves the placement of 2 transducers on the abdomen of a pregnant women.

One transducer records the foetal heart rate using ultrasound.

The other transducer monitors the contractions of the uterus.

It does this by measuring the tension of the maternal abdominal wall.

This provides an indirect indication of intrauterine pressure.

The CTG is then assessed by the midwife & obstetric medical team.

How to read a CTG

To interpret a CTG you need a structured method of assessing it’s various characteristics.

The most popular structure can be remembered using the acronym DR C BRAVADO

DRDefine Risk
BRaBaseline Rate


A – Accelerations

O Overall impression

Define risk

You first need to assess if this pregnancy is high or low risk

This is important as it gives more context to the CTG reading

e.g. If the pregnancy is high risk, your threshold for intervening may be lowered

Reasons a pregnancy may be considered high risk are shown below¹


Maternal medical illness

Gestational diabetes


Obstetric complications

Multiple gestation
Post-date gestation
Previous cesarean section
Intrauterine growth restriction
Premature rupture of the membranes
Congenital malformations
Oxytocin induction/augmentation of labor


Other risk factors

No prenatal care

Drug abuse


Record the number of contractions present in a 10 minute period e.g. 3 in 10

Each big square is equal to 1 minute, so you look how many contractions occurred in 10 squares

Individual contractions are seen as peaks on the part of the CTG monitoring uterine activity

You should assess contractions for the following:

  • Durationhow long do the contractions last?
  • Intensityhow strong are the contractions? (assessed using palpation)


In this example there are 2-3 contractions in a 10 minute period – e.g. 3 in 10


Baseline rate of foetal heart

The baseline rate is the average heart rate of the foetus in a 10 minute window

Look at the CTG & assess what the average heart rate has been over the last 10 minutes

Ignore any Accelerations or Decelerations

A normal foetal heart rate is between 110-150 bpm¹



Foetal Tachycardia

Foetal tachycardia is defined as a baseline heart rate greater than 160 bpm

It can be caused by:¹

  • Foetal hypoxia
  • Chorioamnionitis – if maternal fever also present
  • Hyperthyroidism
  • Foetal or Maternal Anaemia
  • Foetal tachyarrhythmia


Foetal Bradycardia

Foetal bradycardia is defined as a baseline heart rate less than 120 bpm.

Mild bradycardia of between 100-120bpm is common in the following situations:

  • Post-date gestation
  • Occiput posterior or transverse presentations


Severe prolonged bradycardia (< 80 bpm for > 3 minutes) indicates severe hypoxia

Causes of prolonged severe bradycardia are:¹

  • Prolonged cord compression
  • Cord prolapse
  • Epidural & Spinal Anaesthesia
  • Maternal seizures
  • Rapid foetal descent


If the cause cannot be identified and corrected, immediate delivery is recommended


Baseline variability refers to the variation of foetal heart rate from one beat to the next

Variability occurs as a result of the interaction between the nervous system, chemoreceptors, barorecptors & cardiac responsiveness.

Therefore it is a good indicator of how healthy the foetus is at that moment in time.

This is because a healthy foetus will constantly be adapting it’s heart rate to respond to changes in it’s environment.


Normal variability is between 10-25 bpm³


To calculate variability you look at how much the peaks & troughs of the heart rate deviate from the baseline rate (in bpm)


Variability can be categorised as: 4

  • Reassuring – ≥ 5 bpm
  • Non-reassuring – < 5bpm for between 40-90 minutes
  • Abnormal – < 5bpm for >90 minutes



Reduced variability can be caused by: ³

  • Foetus sleeping – this should last no longer than 40 minutes – most common cause
  • Foetal acidosis (due to hypoxia) – more likely if late decelerations also present
  • Foetal tachycardia
  • Drugs – opiates, benzodiazipine’s, methyldopa, magnesium sulphate
  • Prematurity – variability is reduced at earlier gestation (<28 weeks)
  • Congenital heart abnormalities


Reduced variability

Reduced variability 5



Accelerations are an abrupt increase in baseline heart rate of >15 bpm for >15 seconds

The presence of accelerations is reassuring

Antenatally there should be at least 2 accelerations every 15 minutes¹

Accelerations occurring alongside uterine contractions is a sign of a healthy foetus

However the absence of accelerations with an otherwise normal CTG is of uncertain significance


Decelerations are an abrupt decrease in baseline heart rate of >15 bpm for >15 seconds

There are a number of different types of decelerations, each with varying significance






Early deceleration

Early decelerations start when uterine contraction begins & recover when uterine contraction stops

This is due to increased foetal intracranial pressure causing increased vagal tone

It therefore quickly resolves once the uterine contraction ends & intracranial pressure reduces

This type of deceleration is therefore considered to be physiological & not pathological³


Variable deceleration

Variable decelerations are seen as a rapid fall in baseline rate with a variable recovery phase

They are variable in their duration & may not have any relationship to uterine contractions

They are most often seen during labour & in patients with reduced amniotic fluid volume

Variable decelerations are usually caused by umbilical cord compression¹

  • The umbilical vein is often occluded first causing an acceleration in response
  • Then the umbilical artery is occluded causing a subsequent rapid deceleration
  • When pressure on the cord is reduced another acceleration occurs & then the baseline rate returns
  • Accelerations before & after a variable deceleration are known as the “shoulders of deceleration”
  • There presence indicates the foetus is not yet hypoxic & is adapting to the reduced blood flow.

Variable decelerations can sometimes resolve if the mother changes position

The presence of persistent variable decelerations indicates the need for close monitoring

Variable decelerations without the shoulders is more worrying as it suggests the foetus is hypoxic


Variable deceleration

Variable deceleration 5


Late deceleration

Late decelerations begin at the peak of uterine contraction & recover after the contraction ends.

This type of deceleration indicates there is insufficient blood flow through the uterus & placenta

As a result blood flow to the foetus is significantly reduced causing foetal hypoxia & acidosis


Reduced utero-placental blood flow can be caused by: ¹

  • Maternal hypotension
  • Pre-eclampsia
  • Uterine hyper-stimulation


The presence of late decelerations is taken seriously & foetal blood sampling for pH is indicated

If foetal blood pH is acidotic it indicates significant foetal hypoxia & the need for emergency C-section


Late deceleration

Late deceleration 5

Prolonged deceleration

A deceleration that last more than 2 minutes

If it lasts between 2-3 minutes it is classed as Non-Reasurring

If it lasts longer than 3 minutes it is immediately classed as Abnormal

Action must be taken quickly – e.g. Foetal blood sampling / emergency C-section


Prolonged deceleration

Prolonged deceleration 5


Sinusoidal Pattern

This type of pattern is rare, however if present it is very serious

It is associated with high rates of foetal morbidity & mortality ¹


It is described as:

  • A smooth, regular, wave-like pattern
  • Frequency of around 2-5 cycles a minute
  • Stable baseline rate around 120-160 bpm
  • No beat to beat variability



A sinusoidal pattern indicates:

  • Severe foetal hypoxia
  • Severe foetal anaemia
  • Foetal/Maternal Haemorrhage


Immediate C-section is indicated for this kind of pattern.

Outcome is usually poor


Overall impression

Once you have assessed all aspects of the CTG you need to give your overall impression

The overall impression can be described as either: 4

  • Reassuring
  • Suspicious
  • Pathological

The overall impression is determined by how many of the CTG features were either reassuring, non-reassuring or abnormal. The NICE guideline below demonstrates how to decide which category a CTG falls into.4

Recommended reading
We think “Clinical Obstetrics & Gynaecology – 3rd edition” is AWESOME and an excellent way to enhance your learning of obstetrics & gynaecology. Click the image to be taken to Amazon to purchase



3. Clinical obstetrics & gynaecology. 2nd Edition. 2009. B.Magowan, Philip Owen, James Drife

4. Nice guidelines