Signs of Fetal Distress

Fetal distress can mean many things, but it usually means an unborn baby is unable to get enough oxygen. This may happen due to a problem with umbilical cord or placenta. A problem with the baby or a maternal lack of oxygen may also lead to fetal distress. Any problem with the baby is usually detected during routine ultrasounds. You may also be monitored during labor as well as delivery for signs of fetal distress. It is possible to have a C-section instead of vaginal delivery if your baby is in distress.

Possible Signs Indicating Fetal Distress

You may have to deal with certain problems when your baby is in distress. Possible signs indicating that your baby is distressed include:

1. Lack of Movement

The best way to tell if your baby is doing just fine is to monitor baby's movements. You may notice a change in movements as your pregnancy progresses because your baby does not have enough room to move around. You should still be able to feel regular movements though and if that is not the case, it may be one of the signs of fetal distress. Just keep in mind that every baby is different and some are going to be more active, and it is your responsibility to understand what is normal for your baby. You should worry if you notice a change in that pattern.

2. Vaginal Bleeding

It is common to have small amounts of vaginal bleeding throughout your pregnancy, but it might indicate fetal distress and other problems, such as placenta previa, placental abruptions, and vasa previa. You experience placental abruption in case the placenta tears away from the womb, and this can cause fetal distress. Keep in mind that you may not have any bleeding with a placental abruption, but a bleeding confirms you have some underlying issues.

3. Cramping

Abdominal cramps are quite common in pregnancy and are the result of your baby growing in size. You should talk to your doctor though if your cramps are intense. Cramping may sometimes indicate placental abruption that can cause fetal distress. You should seek immediate medical attention if the cramping is intense and you have back pain as well.

4. Maternal High Blood Pressure

Some pregnant women develop preeclampsia, which means your blood pressure may have been normal before pregnancy but now is on the higher side. Hypertension during pregnancy leads to oxygen deprivation and placental problems. You may also develop high blood pressure due to placental problems, which in turn leads to constricted blood vessels that limit blood supply to the baby. It is therefore important to work closely with your healthcare provider if your blood pressure is elevated during pregnancy.

5. Heart Rate Changes

Your baby's heart rate tells a lot about his/her health. Your healthcare provider also monitors your baby's heart rate to ensure he/she is responding well to stresses of delivery. Heart rate that is too fast, too slow, or changing abruptly is usually among the signs of fetal distress. Keep in mind that your baby's heart rate is likely to come down during contractions but it should become normal soon after the contraction ends.

6. Amniotic Fluid Levels

Your healthcare provider will measure your amniotic fluid levels to determine the health of your baby. Too much or too little amniotic fluid may indicate problems with your baby, and your doctor may recommend an early delivery in this case.

7. Amniotic Fluid Staining

Your doctor will check the color of your amniotic fluid soon after your amniotic sac breaks during labor. Your baby is distress if your doctor notices brownish or greenish amniotic fluid, which happens when the baby passes stool during labor.

8. Fetal Scalp Sampling

When you are in labor, your obstetrician may take a sample of blood from the scalp of your baby to confirm distress. If your baby is not getting enough oxygen, the blood pH will appear to be too acidic. Your obstetrician is more likely to recommend a C-section in this case.

What to Do

In case you notice any signs of fetal distress or suspect your baby is in distress, you need to talk to your doctor immediately. There are certain things you can do though.

  • Consider sleeping on your left side during the second and third trimesters to promote blood circulation to your baby. This greatly reduces risk of causing fetal distress.
  • Consider increasing your fluid intake to promote oxygenation and prevent distress.
  • Take paracetamol if you are not feeling well or have a fever as well.

Talk to your doctor about the change in your baby's movements and they will determine the best way forward. They may keep you in the hospital and put you on a fetal monitor to see if your baby is showing any signs of distress. They may also give you oxygen as well as some fluids through an IV to oxygenate your blood and keep your baby from being in distress. Whatever the case, if your baby is in distress, your doctor will always recommend an early delivery. How your baby is born usually depends on how far you are in your pregnancy or labor. They may stick to vaginal delivery in case your cervix has dilated completely.

What If Your Baby Is Distressed?

If your doctor notices stool in the amniotic fluid that your baby has inhaled, it may affect the airways of your baby and cause meconium aspiration syndrome (MAS). The condition may irritate the lung tissue of your baby and cause an infection in the airways. This may also lead to a complete blockage of your baby's airways.

Your doctor will still monitor your baby for breathing problems if they noticed meconium in the amniotic fluid but believe that your baby did not inhale it. They will check your baby one hour and two hours after delivery and then twice every hour until your baby is 12 hours old. They will look at your baby's general wellbeing, skin color, chest movements, heart rate, muscle tone, and temperature during this phase.

A Quick Note

While it is natural to feel bad when you know your baby is in distress, you need to understand that sometimes you can do nothing to prevent fetal distress during labor. Complications can arise due to all sorts of reasons and you may have little to no control over them. Do not blame yourself and share your feelings with your midwife or partner after the birth of your baby. 

 
 
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