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Fetal distress

4-minute read

Fetal distress is a sign your baby isn’t coping with labour. It might mean they need closer monitoring and possibly a caesarean to speed up the birth.

What is fetal distress?

Fetal distress is a sign that your baby is not well. It happens when the baby isn’t receiving enough oxygen through the placenta.

If it’s not treated, fetal distress can lead to the baby breathing in amniotic fluid containing meconium (poo). This can make it difficult for them to breathe after birth, or they may even stop breathing.

Fetal distress can sometimes happen during pregnancy, but it’s more common during labour.

What causes fetal distress?

The most common cause of fetal distress is when the baby doesn’t receive enough oxygen because of problems with the placenta (including placental abruption or placental insufficiency) or problems with the umbilical cord (for example, if the cord gets compressed because it comes out of the cervix first).

Fetal distress can also occur because the mother has a health condition such as diabetes, kidney disease or cholestasis (a condition that affects the liver in pregnancy).

It is more common when pregnancy lasts too long, or when there are other complications during labour. Sometimes it happens because the contractions are too strong or too close together.

You are more at risk of your baby experiencing fetal distress if:

How is fetal distress diagnosed?

Fetal distress is diagnosed by reading the baby’s heart rate. A slow heart rate, or unusual patterns in the heart rate, may signal fetal distress.

Sometimes fetal distress is picked up when a doctor or midwife listens to the baby’s heart during pregnancy. The baby’s heart rate is usually monitored throughout the labour to check for signs of fetal distress.

Another sign is if there is meconium in the amniotic fluid. Let your doctor or midwife know right away if your notice the amniotic fluid is green or brown since this could signal the presence of meconium.

How is fetal distress managed?

The first step is usually to give the mother oxygen and fluids. Sometimes, moving position, such as turning onto one side, can reduce the baby’s distress.

If you had drugs to speed up labour, these may be stopped if there are signs of fetal distress. If it’s a natural labour, then you may be given medication to slow down the contractions.

Sometimes a baby in fetal distress needs to be born quickly. This may be achieved by an assisted (or instrumental) delivery which is when the doctor uses either forceps or ventouse (vacuum extractor) to help you deliver the baby, or you might need to have an emergency caesarean.

Does fetal distress have any lasting effects?

Babies who experience fetal distress, such as having an usual heart rate or passing meconium during labour, are at greater risk of complications after birth. Lack of oxygen during birth can lead to very serious complications for the baby, including a brain injury, cerebral palsy and even stillbirth.

Fetal distress often requires birth by caesarean section. While this is a safe operation, it carries extra risks to both the mother and baby, including blood loss, infections and possible birth injuries.

Babies born with an assisted delivery can also be at greater risk of short-term problems such as jaundice, and may have some difficulty feeding. Having lots of skin-to-skin contact with your baby after the birth and breastfeeding can help reduce these risks.

You won’t necessarily experience fetal distress in your next pregnancy. Every pregnancy is different. If you’re worried about future pregnancies, it can help to talk to your doctor or midwife so they can explain what happened before and during the birth.

Women whose labour didn’t go to plan often feel quite negative about their birth experience.

If you feel sad or disappointed or traumatised about what happened, it is important to talk to someone. You can contact or talk to a range of people and organisations, including:

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Last reviewed: January 2020

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