Stressing Over Fetal Distress


Though most of us likely don’t know what the phrase “fetal distress” means, it sure sounds like something best avoided. Fetal distress is the term most often used when a baby (fetus) is not getting enough oxygen during pregnancy and/or childbirth. But don’t fret; this complication is rare and in most cases manageable. Fetal distress is sometimes described as hypoxia (low oxygen levels).

Fetal heart rate monitoring

The best way to detect fetal distress during pregnancy is to listen to your baby’s heartbeat. Your doctor or midwife will listen to baby’s heart at each prenatal appointment to make sure there is no irregular rhythm. Once labor begins, a monitor is strapped with a belt or elastic band around mother’s belly to detect baby’s heartbeat. If there are abnormal patterns in your baby’s heart rate, this is a sign of hypoxia and fetal distress.

Why would my baby have fetal distress?

There are many reasons why a baby could undergo fetal distress. Some of the most common include:

  1. Anemia – Low iron in the blood
  2. Oligohydraminos – Not enough amniotic fluid surrounding the baby
  3. Hypertension during pregnancy
  4. Being pregnant longer than 42 weeks
  5. Meconium aspiration syndrome – Baby’s first bowel movement is called meconium. Sometimes, this can occur while baby is still in the womb. The meconium mixes with and stains the amniotic fluid and baby can breathe it in. This can make it difficult for your baby to breathe directly after birth.
  6. Problems with the placenta or umbilical cord

Intrauterine resuscitation helps babies in fetal distress

If a baby is undergoing fetal distress during labor, there are some ways to alleviate and resuscitate baby while still in the womb (intrauterine resuscitation). Your doctor may:

  • Administer oxygen
  • Push additional liquids through your IV
  • Help you change positions by rolling on either side
  • Perform amnioinfusion – If the reason for baby’s lack of oxygen is a compressed umbilical cord, amnioinfusion may be performed by inserting fluid into the amniotic cavity to cushion the umbilical cord better.
  • Try tocolysis. Sometimes babies will undergo fetal distress once labor contractions begin. In this case, tocolysis – a therapy used to delay labor temporarily – may be attempted.

If these do not help the baby stabilize, it could lead to an emergency C-section.

Newborn resuscitation

Approximately 10% of newborns need help breathing directly after birth. Generally, your doctor will observe your baby immediately for three things: gestation (whether your baby is full-term or premature), good muscle tone, and crying/breathing. If your baby is not doing one or more of these, some form of newborn resuscitation may be required. Only 1% of babies need intensive resuscitation at birth. Depending on the situation and how responsive the baby is, your delivery team will help your baby breathe by:

  1. Providing warmth (important for preemie babies), stimulation, and clearing baby’s airway
  2. Using ventilation
  3. Initiating chest compressions
  4. Epinephrine (adrenaline) administration

Though it is a serious complication, fetal distress can be caught early and treated during prenatal appointments – thorough prenatal care is so important!

Have you had any experiences with fetal distress? Share in the comments!


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