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Fetal Distress

by Julie S. Moldenhauer, MD

Fetal distress refers to signs before and during childbirth indicating that the fetus is not well.

Fetal distress is an uncommon complication of labor. It typically occurs when the fetus has not been receiving enough oxygen. Fetal distress may occur when the pregnancy lasts too long (postmaturity) or when complications of pregnancy or labor occur.

Usually, doctors identify fetal distress based on an abnormal heart rate pattern in the fetus. Throughout labor, the fetus’s heart rate is monitored. It is usually monitored continuously with electronic fetal heart monitoring. Or, a handheld Doppler ultrasound device may be used to check the heart rate every 15 minutes during early labor and after each contraction during late labor.

If a significant abnormality in the heart rate is detected, it can usually be corrected by the following:

  • Giving the woman oxygen

  • Increasing the amount of fluids given intravenously to the woman

  • Turning the woman on her left side

If these measures are not effective, the baby is delivered as quickly as possible by a vacuum extractor, forceps, or cesarean delivery.

Did You Know...

  • An abnormal heart rate in a fetus may be the earliest sign of fetal distress.

If the amniotic fluid appears green after the membranes have ruptured, the fetus may be in distress (but usually is not). This discoloration is caused by the fetus’s first stool (called meconium). Sometimes the baby inhales the meconium before labor or during delivery, causing the baby to have difficulty breathing shortly after birth.

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