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What is Fetal Distress?

Jessica Ellis
Updated May 17, 2024
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Fetal distress is a broad medical term describing signs of illness or abnormal conditions in a fetus. The symptoms often appear during labor, when the fetus experiences extreme stress, but may also be noticeable during pregnancy. Fetal distress may be monitored by doctors until the problem becomes apparent, or the fetus' condition worsens considerably. If the case becomes severe, doctors have a variety of options available to help the baby.

There are several common symptoms of fetal distress that expectant mothers and their doctors should watch for during pregnancy. One of the most obvious is a decrease or cessation of fetal movement. Heart rate may decrease or increase if a baby is in fetal distress, particularly during labor contractions. To test for heart rate changes, some doctors may insist on monitoring the heart rate of the baby during labor, ensuring that any changes are obvious immediately.

One major cause of fetal distress is oxygen deprivation. This can be the result of several different problems, such as abnormal fetal position or problems with the umbilical cord. If a doctor deems the deprivation to be temporary and correctable, he or she may give the mother an IV to increase oxygen flow until the baby's heartbeat stabilizes. In some cases, a doctor may choose to deliver a baby immediately rather than risk brain damage or possible fatality.

If a case of fetal distress is not easily correctable, the best option may be getting the baby out of the womb and into medical treatment immediately. This can be accomplished by inducing labor via medication or performing an emergency C-section. Understandably, this process can be quite frightening and stressful to a mother anticipating a normal birth. Experts recommend that expectant mothers prepare themselves for this possibility, knowing that it may be the best thing for a baby's health.

There are some conditions that may elevate the risk of fetal distress. Women who suffer from weight problems, diabetes, those that use alcohol or drugs, and women carrying multiple babies are all somewhat more likely to have problems with fetal distress. If any of these conditions occur, some recommend having a frank discussion with the doctor about what his or her exact plan is in the event of fetal distress. This can help prepare mothers for all options, and prevent them from panicking should an emergency delivery be required.

Many infants that experience fetal distress are able to fully recover with no lingering effects. In some cases, however, the oxygen deprivation can do permanent harm. Brain damage, slowed development rates, and death are all possible consequences of this condition. By ensuring proper, attentive prenatal care and avoiding alcohol and drugs while pregnant, the chance of significant problems may be considerably lower

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Jessica Ellis
By Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis brings a unique perspective to her work as a writer for WiseGeek. While passionate about drama and film, Jessica enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics, creating content that is both informative and engaging for readers.
Discussion Comments
By anon319128 — On Feb 11, 2013

I would like know how fetal distress as an infant can affect you as an adult? I was born with it. My birth was by C-section. I am very stressed as an adult.

Does fetal distress affect you as an adult? --Harold B.

By ElizaBennett — On May 22, 2011

@rugbygirl - I'm glad that your baby was fine and that your doc didn't panic and make you have interventions. The thing about fetal distress is that it's very hard to know when to intervene and when to just monitor more closely. When my sister delivered, she had a very long labor and finally had to have Pitocin. Then that caused the baby's heartbeat to slow down with contractions. They decided to use an internal fetal monitor at the point because it gives more accurate information about the baby's heartbeat and how it's responding to contractions. (Her baby was fine, too.)

By rugbygirl — On May 19, 2011

For me, the first sign of fetal distress was meconium. It's this green stuff that the baby is supposed to pass after birth as its first bowel movements, but distress causes it to release early. Some time after my water broke, I noticed green fluid leaking. The doc wasn't all that concerned about it and didn't make me have continuous fetal monitoring. Baby turned out to be fine.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis...
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