Merck Manual

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Quick Facts

Fetal Distress


The Manual's Editorial Staff

Last full review/revision Oct 2019| Content last modified Oct 2019
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What is fetal distress?

A fetus is a baby that's still in your womb (uterus). Fetal distress means the baby is not doing well before or during labor.

  • It typically happens when the baby has not been receiving enough oxygen

  • Fetal distress may happen when the pregnancy lasts too long or there are other complications

  • Doctors notice fetal distress by finding an unusual heart beat in the baby

  • Doctors treat fetal distress by giving you oxygen and fluids or turning you on your side

  • Doctors may need to deliver your baby right away

The stress on the baby can cause the baby to breathe in amniotic fluid that contains some of the baby's poop (this poop is called meconium). A baby that breathes in meconium can have difficulty breathing and sometimes will stop breathing.

How can doctors tell if my baby has fetal distress?

While you're in labor, the doctor or midwife measures your baby's heart rate. An abnormal heart rate is a sign of fetal distress.

How do doctors treat fetal distress?

Doctors treat fetal distress by:

  • Giving you oxygen

  • Giving you fluids in your vein (IV)

  • Turning you on your side

If the baby is still having trouble, the baby is delivered as quickly as possible by a vacuum extractor, forceps, or C-Section.

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