Fetal distress is a term used to indicate that a fetus is in distress; specifically the baby’s oxygen supply is compromised. This can also be accompanied by a change in baby’s heart rate and active movement. Most of the time when fetal distress is detected a C-Section is necessary.

When does fetal distress occur?

Fetal distress can occur during active labor or before labor.

A new mom can pick up potential signs of fetal distress prior to active labor by monitoring her baby’s movements.

Normally during the last few weeks of pregnancy it’s normal for you to feel about 10 movements a day, those movements can slow down a bit as you near the end of your pregnancy, but the movements should still be regular.  If you suspect distress call your doctor immediately. If distress is detected a C-section may be needed.

If you are in active labor your doctor can detect fetal distress through careful monitoring. If your doctor detects fetal distress a vaginal delivery may not be possible and again C-Section will be needed.

Who is most at risk for fetal distress?

Women who are at risk of complications such as diabetes, toxemia, high blood pressure, and preeclampsia or post term have a greater likelihood of experiencing fetal distress.  Additionally if Pitocin is used during labor this can cause a slowing of the baby’s heartbeat.

Additionally these are things that can contribute to the cause of fetal distress.

·Umbilical cord around the neck

·Placental abruption

·Cord prolapse

·Uterine infection

·Uterine rupture

·Long trial of labor

In many fetal distress cases, doctors have plenty of time to discuss the situation and the options, but if fetal distress occurs abruptly which can happen if there is uterine rupture or the placenta is tearing away, doctors have to act fast and deliver the baby quickly to avoid infant brain damage or even death.

Does fetal distress always result in a Cesarean?

Most of the time but not always. In most cases having a C-Section is the best option for a baby in distress.  However, fetal distress is also one of the most common reasons a doctor will prescribe a C-section birth.

That doesn’t mean the C-Section isn’t necessary, but it could. Things become unclear because not all doctors agree on the technicalities of what fetal distress is. There are differing opinions on how slow a fetal heart rate should be and for how long it can tolerated before performing a C-Section. There are doctors who diagnose fetal distress as a significant slowing of the heart rate for more than several minutes and doctors don’t all agree on the definition of ‘several’ minutes. Other doctors will tell you that fetal distress is a significant slowing of the fetal heart rate at a point where the heart beat should not be slowing down, In other words the need for a C-Section can be based on your doctor’s definition of fetal distress.

Can the term be used as a catchall, even abused? Absolutely. If a doctor wants to get a long labor with ‘failure to progress’ moving along, a small blip on the heartbeat monitor could be viewed as fetal distress meaning a C-Section is needed.

This leads us back to the concern for the unnecessary Cesarean.  Is there a desire of the doctor to move things along or is there serious fetal distress. Then again do you really want to take a chance on second guessing your doctor? It may be better to err on the side of caution.

How do you as a mother know for sure?

I believe that most doctors have the best intentions for their patients and want to take the safest course of treatment based on their experience and medical knowledge, but we don’t want them to take shortcuts that are unnecessary either.

As a new mom it’s important to be involved with the birth of your baby. Find out if you’re at risk of experiencing fetal distress and discuss this with your doctor prior to your due date. Clarify with your doctor how he diagnoses fetal distress and if it occurs, how will it be handled.

In Closing… 

Fetal distress can be very serious.  It can cause things like neurological injuries, cerebral palsy, or even death; it’s not something to take lightly.  However it’s in the best interest of every new mother to educate herself on the signs of fetal distress, how it’s monitored and what the indications are so that she can not only take appropriate action herself if needed, but also feel confident that the best decisions are being made for her and the birth of her baby.

by Elizabeth McGee, The Worry-Free C-Section

Image courtesy of arztsamui / FreeDigitalPhotos.net