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Fetal Distress

By

Julie S. Moldenhauer

, MD, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia

Last full review/revision Jan 2020| Content last modified Jan 2020
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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).

  • Other complications of pregnancy or labor (such as difficult or rapid 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 one side or the other

Did You Know...

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

Contractions that are too strong and/or too close together may cause fetal distress. If oxytocin was used to stimulate contractions, it is stopped immediately. The woman may be repositioned and given analgesics. If no drug was used to stimulate contractions, the woman may be given a drug that can slow labor (such as terbutaline, given by injection) to stop or slow the contractions.

If these measures to correct the fetus's heart rate or control contractions are not effective, the baby is delivered as quickly as possible by a vacuum extractor, forceps, or cesarean delivery.

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