What is Fetal Distress?
Fetal distress is an indication that the baby is not well in utero. When a baby is in distress it may require immediate intervention, delivery by C-section, or certain methods of intrauterine resuscitation to prevent any damage or injury to the baby. If fetal distress goes unmanaged it can lead to more severe injuries such as hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy (HIE).
Signs of Fetal Distress
Fetal distress can cause changes in the baby’s heart rate, including fetal heart rate decelerations and decreased variability. A fetal heart rate monitor will often detect the presence of abnormal fetal heart rate tracings when the baby is in distress. Other than changes in the fetal heart rage, the common signs of fetal distress include:
- Decreased Fetal Movement: Fetal movement within the mother’s womb is one of the most characteristic parts of pregnancy. Fetal movement is an important sign that your baby is in good health. A baby’s movements usually become established around 28 weeks into the pregnancy; during this time there is both movement and stillness, as babies sleep and rest in the womb. Medical professionals should ask an expectant mother if her baby’s movements have stopped, slowed, or decreased during prenatal appointments, since decreased fetal movement can be a sign of fetal distress. If fetal movement is decreased the physician should perform prenatal tests such as non-stress tests (NST), biophysical profiles (BPP), and/or ultrasounds to observe the baby in the womb.
- Cramping: As a baby grows and the uterus expands, mothers will often experience cramping during pregnancy. Doctors should inform mothers about reporting cramping as soon as they occur, especially if cramping is severe and if back pain is also present. Intense cramping may be an indication of several serious complications – such as placental abruption – that may cause fetal distress.
- Vaginal Bleeding: Certain conditions such as placenta previa, vasa previa, and placental abruption can cause bleeding during pregnancy. Depending on the severity of these issues, they may all cause fetal distress. Due to this, medical professions should pay attention to maternal reports of vaginal bleeding, as it may be an indication of a more serious condition that could lead to fetal distress.
- Weight Gain: It is important for mothers and their physicians to pay attention to how much weight gain occurs during pregnancy. Experts state weight gain between 20 and 40 pounds during pregnancy is normal. Pregnancy weight gain outside of this range might lead to fetal distress.
- Maternal High Blood Pressure: Any time a mother develops high blood pressure during pregnancy, it is concerning. Oftentimes high blood pressure during pregnancy may lead to a maternal health condition called preeclampsia. Maternal high blood pressure might cause a baby to become oxygen deprived due to placental problems.
What To Do in Cases of Fetal Distress
Expectant mothers are not always with their physician when signs of fetal distress occur. Because of this doctors need to instruct mothers how to notice signs and symptoms of distress, and what to do when they notice any of these signs, or what to do if they are concerned about any other aspect of their pregnancy. Medical personnel must closely monitor high-risk pregnancies and continuously assess the health of the mother and their babies.
When physicians recognize, or are alerted about, signs of fetal distress they can monitor the baby and decide how to proceed in the safest way. Once a baby experiences signs of fetal distress on monitoring, the main goal is to return the baby to an oxygen rich state as soon as possible to avoid the risk of any injury. Sometimes, the best way to alleviate fetal distress is to deliver, thereby removing the baby from an oxygen-deprived environment. C-section delivery may be the safest way for this to delivery to occur.
Fetal Distress and HIE
Fetal distress occurs when the baby is not well in the womb. Oftentimes fetal distress occurs when a baby is cut off from its oxygen supply, leading to oxygen deprivation. Medical professionals must address the signs of fetal distress immediately in order to prevent the occurrence of hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy (HIE). If fetal distress is left unmanaged, and HIE occurs, it can lead to long-term, permanent brain damage in the baby. In addition, HIE is associated with an increased risk of other long-term health issues including:
- Cerebral palsy
- Epilepsy and seizure disorders
- Intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD)
- Behavioral and emotional disorders
- Hearing and visual impairments
Infographic: Signs of Fetal Distress