Doctor Screening Pregnant Woman By Ultrasound

It’s no question that giving birth to your baby can be stressful and uncomfortable. At the end of the day, the greatest desire of all pregnant women is to give birth to a healthy baby. 

Delivering your baby is ultimately an uneventful and long process under normal circumstances (of course, that is until you get to hold your beautiful baby in your arms). 

But sometimes, complications can arise during pregnancy or labor that causes an unborn baby to go into fetal distress, which can be dangerous. In the case that this does occur, proper care is required as you may be required to undergo immediate delivery. 

What Is Fetal Distress?

Fetal distress is a fairly uncommon complication that can occur during labor if your doctor sees signs of your baby not coping well with the demands of labor. 

Signs of your baby not coping with the demands of labor include the lack of our baby’s oxygen supply. Your baby’s oxygen deprivation can oftentimes be detected through an abnormal or decreased fetal heart rate. 

What Causes Fetal Distress?

There are many reasons why a baby may go through distress. 

In most situations, a health complication affects how much blood, oxygen, and nutrients reach your baby. 

Additionally, if you’re expecting twins, one or both of your babies have a higher chance of becoming distressed. 

Many risk factors can cause fetal distress, including:

  • Low or high levels of amniotic fluids
  • Preeclampsia 
  • Placental abruption 
  • Intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR)
  • Post-maturity (pregnancy lasting longer than 40 weeks)
  • Umbilical cord prolapse, compression, or entanglement 
  • Staying in one position for a long period of time during labor 
  • Complications with the timing of your labor 
  • Having multiple pregnancies
  • History of stillbirth or delivery complications


It is extremely vital for your doctor to be properly monitoring you and your baby throughout your pregnancy in order to detect signs of potential complications. 

Fetal Movements 

Although fetal distress occurs during labor, there are signs that you can pay attention to during your pregnancy in order to monitor the health of your baby. For instance, your baby’s movements can tell you a lot about their wellbeing. If you notice decreased fetal movements or a different pattern of movements, you should immediately notify a medical professional of these warning signs. 

Fetal Heart Rate 

Electronic fetal heart rate (FHR) monitoring is a method that is widely known and used in order to discover any problems in your baby’s health. 

The fetal heart rate (FHR) has many benefits such as being able to recognize the development of birth asphyxia, which is when your unborn baby doesn’t get adequate amounts of oxygen. It’s also able to monitor the mother’s contractions which can lead to a safer outcome of high-risk labor.  


Another common way to diagnose fetal distress is if your baby’s stool (meconium) is found in the amniotic fluid, which your doctor or midwife can recognize when your water breaks. Typically, amniotic fluid is clear, with a hint of pink, red, or yellow. However, if it appears to be black, it can indicate that your baby has passed meconium. 

This is more likely to occur if your pregnancy is overdue. 

However, finding meconium in your amniotic fluid doesn’t always warrant a sign of fetal distress. One thing to pay attention to is the thickness of the meconium. If it appears to be lumpy, this can be a problem as it can get into your baby’s airways. 

How To Treat Fetal Distress 

If your doctor suspects that your unborn baby is undergoing fetal distress, a number of safety measures will be taken. 

Your doctor or midwife may touch your baby’s scalp to see if they will react to the simulation. They may also choose to take a fetal blood sample from the scalp of your baby. 

The blood sample will be used and tested in order to find out if your baby is getting sufficient oxygen which is the best way to find out if your baby is coping well with the demands of labor. 

If your baby is getting enough oxygen, your labor can proceed as it is. However, if the doctor discovers oxygen deficiency, your doctor may come to the conclusion that your baby is in distress. 

If this occurs, your doctor will attempt to help you by:

  • Increasing your fluid levels (drinking water or using a drip)
  • Monitor your temperature 
  • Turning you on your left-hand side to reduce the pressure of your womb and reduce blood flow to your baby
  • Attempt to increase your contractions (sometimes by stopping the medication)

The first step that is usually taken is to give the mother the necessary oxygen and fluids. Additionally, adjusting your body position, such as turning you onto one side can help reduce your baby’s distress. 

If you decide to take medication during your labor in order to reduce the pain or speed up the process, this may be stopped at the sign of fetal distress. On the other hand, if you decide to go with a natural delivery, you may need to be given medication in order to slow down your contractions.

In the case that your baby is still in distress, your baby will need to be delivered as soon as possible. There are many courses of action that can be taken based on what stage of labor you’ve reached: cesarean section, using a vacuum cap, or forceps. 

Does Fetal Distress Have Lasting Effects?

Now that you know that fetal distress is a result of complications during your labor, you may be wondering if it can also cause complications and side effects even after giving birth. 

Generally, oxygen deprivation and birth asphyxia can lead to unfortunate complications, however, your doctor will respond quickly to reduce these risks. Babies who undergo fetal distress, including having a slow or rapid heartbeat, or passing meconium during labor, are at a greater risk of problems after being born.

As mentioned, fetal distress can oftentimes lead to emergency birth by a cesarean section. This is relatively the best and safest course of action in this situation, however, it still comes with its own risks to both the mother and the baby. These risks include excessive blood loss, infections, pain, swelling, and birth injuries.

Assisted delivery can lead your baby to face a greater risk of short-term problems such as difficulty breathing and jaundice, which is a condition that causes yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes. A good way to help reduce these short-term risks is to breastfeed and have a lot of skin-on-skin contact with your baby after birth.

If your doctor fails to identify fetal distress, delays treatment and fails to take action, your baby faces the risk of permanent brain damage, cerebral palsy, other long-term effects, and even stillbirth. 

Although, rest assured that with the medical help from your doctor and close monitoring of the fetal heartbeat, a number of necessary steps will be taken to prevent any long-term complications.

Can You Prevent Fetal Distress? 

Of course, mothers-to-be will do anything and everything in their power to ensure that their baby is born healthy. 

While you cannot prevent fetal distress from occurring altogether, there are things you can do to lower the odds of it happening. 

It’s extremely important for you to commit to your prenatal protocols by attending all of your prenatal appointments and following the recommendations that your doctor gives you on how to keep a healthy pregnancy

Keeping these tips in mind is especially important if you have been diagnosed with a health condition that can increase the risk of fetal distress, like preeclampsia or gestational diabetes

Even with your motherly instincts, it can be hard to notice signs of fetal distress. Therefore, it’s a good idea to increase the number of prenatal doctor visits as you reach your due date. This will allow your doctor to closely and properly monitor your baby’s heart rate, measure your pregnant belly, and ask you about the baby’s movements. 

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