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What Are Signs of Fetal Distress?

?During pregnancy, fetal stress or fetal distress is a sign that your baby isn't well in your womb. The major sign of pregnancy fetal stress is abnormal fetal heart rate.
‌During pregnancy, fetal stress or fetal distress is a sign that your baby isn’t well in your womb. The major sign of pregnancy fetal stress is abnormal fetal heart rate.

During pregnancy, fetal stress or fetal distress is a sign that your baby isn’t well in your womb. If your baby has fetal distress, your doctor will have to closely monitor their heart rate. You may have to undergo a cesarean section to protect your baby.

What is fetal distress?

‌Fetal distress occurs when your baby doesn’t receive enough oxygen through the placenta during pregnancy or labor. It is usually detected by checking your baby’s heart rate.

Fetal distress can be confused with birth asphyxia. Like birth asphyxia, fetal distress can occur when your baby doesn’t get enough oxygen because of birth complications like umbilical cord compression.

Birth asphyxia indicates the lack of oxygen before, during, or after labor. But fetal distress involves the lack of oxygen along with changes in fetal heart rate, amniotic fluid volume, and your baby’s movement.

Fetal distress can also occur if the amniotic fluid contains meconium or your baby’s first poop. Because of the meconium, your baby may not be able to breathe properly.

Causes of fetal distress

‌Common causes of fetal distress include:

  • Placental abruption, or the separation of the placenta from your uterus
  • Placental insufficiency, when the placenta can’t supply oxygen and nutrients to your baby
  • Umbilical cord compression, which occurs when the cord leaves the birth canal before your baby
  • Health conditions like gestational diabetes, kidney problems, and liver problems
  • Post-term pregnancy, lasting more than 42 weeks
  • Complications such as too strong or too frequent labor contractions
  • Anemia
  • Obesity
  • Oligohydramnios, which occurs because of decreased amniotic fluid levels
  • Preeclampsia or high blood pressure
  • Intrauterine growth retardation, when your baby doesn’t grow to the expected weight in the womb
  • Meconium-stained amniotic fluid, which happens when your baby’s stool is present in the amniotic fluid
  • Multiple pregnancies

‌Fetal distress can also occur if you smoke or have had a previous stillbirth.

Signs of fetal distress

The major sign of pregnancy fetal stress is abnormal fetal heart rate.

The following heart rate changes are signs of fetal distress:‌

  • Tachycardia or a fast heart rate of higher than 100 beats per minute
  • Bradycardia or slow heart rate of lower than 60 beats per minute
  • Variable deceleration or sudden decrease in fetal heart rate
  • Late decelerations or gradual decrease in fetal heart rate after a contraction
  • Thick meconium in your amniotic fluid can also be a sign of fetal distress.

You must also watch out for these signs as they may result in fetal distress:

  • Decreased, slowed, or no movement of your baby
  • Intense cramping and severe back pain, indicating complications
  • Vaginal bleeding during pregnancy
  • Rapid weight gain of more than 40 pounds
  • Abnormalities in your baby’s breathing or movement on ultrasound
  • Abnormal amniotic fluid levels

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Diagnosis of fetal distress

Fetal distress is mainly diagnosed by constantly monitoring your baby’s heart rate throughout labor. If your amniotic fluid is green or brown in color, contact your doctor immediately as it indicates the presence of meconium.

‌Your doctor will electronically monitor your baby’s fetal heart rate. By studying the heart rate patterns, your doctor will check whether your baby is getting enough oxygen. The doctor will also monitor your contractions and how your baby responds to them. 

Treatment of fetal distress

‌Your doctor will address the underlying cause of fetal distress to treat it. Here are some ways to manage the signs of fetal distress:‌

  • You will be given oxygen and fluids.
  • Moving your position or turning you to one side can provide relief to your baby.
  • If your baby is in fetal distress, your doctor will immediately plan your baby’s delivery. Your doctor will help you deliver the baby through an assisted delivery using forceps or a vacuum extractor. If not, you may have to undergo an emergency cesarean section. This is done when you have complications during labor or meconium is present in the amniotic fluid.
  • The drugs given to you during labor may be stopped if your baby shows signs of fetal distress.


The first sign of pregnancy is most often:
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Complications of fetal distress

‌Although fetal distress can be treated, the lack of oxygen can cause the following complications for your baby: ‌

‌If you experience fetal distress during your first pregnancy, you won’t necessarily experience it during your next pregnancy. Consult your doctor for more information on precautions to take during pregnancy and labor.

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