Ovine fetal swallowing: Expression of preterm neurobehavioral rhythms

M. J.M. Nijland, L. Day, M. G. Ross

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


Objective: Fetal swallowing contributes importantly to amniotic fluid volume regulation and fetal gastrointestinal maturation. Near-term ovine fetal swallowing occurs in discrete bouts of activity (at approximately 30-min intervals) in association with fetal electrocortical voltage changes. Thus, swallowing rhythms have been hypothesized to be entrained to fetal neurobehavioral states. In the preterm ovine fetus, electrocortical activity does not demonstrate differentiation into high- and low-voltage periods until 120-130 days' gestation. We sought to quantify patterns of preterm (114 days, 0.75 gestation) ovine fetal swallowing activity and volume, and, in view of the lack of electrocortical pattern changes, to explore whether swallowing activity was regulated by an independent central pacemaker. Methods: Six singleton ovine pregnancies were chronically prepared with fetal and maternal femoral artery and vein catheters. Biparietal electrocortical electrodes were placed on the fetal skull. Following a minimum 5-day recovery period, fetuses were studied at 114 ± 1 days. Patterns of fetal swallowing behavior were quantified by computer analysis of laryngeal-esophageal electromyography (EMG) and thoracic esophageal fluid flow during a 12-h period. Results: Esophageal fluid flow was bidirectional, although antegrade flow predominated, leading to an average fluid acquisition rate of 13 ± 3 ml/h (7.3 ± 1.8 ml/h per kg) during the 12-h study (302 ± 87 ml/day). Propagated esophageal EMG activity, representing coordinated 'swallows', averaged 56 ± 6 swallows/h and correlated well with net esophageal fluid flow. 'Bouts' of swallowing activity (≥ 3 swallows/min) averaged 9 ± 1 swallows/bout, lasted 1.8 ± 1.4 min and accounted for 31 ± 4% of the swallowed volume. Despite the absence of fetal electrocortical high-voltage/low-voltage transitions, there was a 26.1 ± 3.9-min interval between periods of swallowing bout activity. Conclusions: Preterm (0.75 gestation) ovine fetal volume swallowed (302 ml/day) and volume swallowed for body weight (175 ml/day per kg) was significantly less than that previously noted at 0.85 gestation (831 ml/day, 274 ml/day per kg, respectively; p < 0.05) although the rates of swallowing activity were similar. The presence of swallowing bout activity at periodic intervals, in the absence of electrocortical differentiation, suggests an intrinsic central pacemaker regulating preterm fetal neurobehavior.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)251-257
Number of pages7
JournalJournal of Maternal-Fetal Medicine
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2001
Externally publishedYes


  • Esophageal peristalsis
  • Fetus
  • Preterm
  • Sheep
  • Swallowing activity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Obstetrics and Gynecology


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