What Is Fetal Distress?

Fetal distress sounds scary! What does it mean?
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March 2, 2017
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During labor, your healthcare providers will monitor your baby’s heart rate to make sure that baby is handling the stress of labor. (Labor’s not a breeze for your baby either!) It’s not uncommon for your baby’s heart rate to dip a little bit during contractions; that’s because oxygen flow from mom to baby through the placenta temporarily slows down during a contraction. Sometimes, though, the baby’s heart rate drops at the beginning of a contraction and stays down afterward, or it slows drastically as the mom is pushing. These are signs of fetal distress.

“Generally speaking, fetal distress would be better described as intolerance of the fetus to labor,” says Michael P. Nageotte, MD, medical director of the MemorialCare Center for Women at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center and Miller Children’s Hospital Long Beach. Causes of fetal distress include umbilical cord problems (the cord might be wrapped around the baby, or become compressed between mom and baby when mom pushes), head compression, placental abruption, uterine infection or uterine rupture.

Fetal distress is a sign that there might be something wrong, so expect your care providers to leap into action. They may place an oxygen mask on your face (to increase the flow of oxygen to you and your baby), turn you on your left side (again, to increase oxygen flow to your baby; lying on your left takes pressure off a major vein that leads to your uterus) or make steps to hasten the delivery of your baby.

But you can take comfort in the fact that most babies who experience distress during labor are born healthy.

Please note: The Bump and the materials and information it contains are not intended to, and do not constitute, medical or other health advice or diagnosis and should not be used as such. You should always consult with a qualified physician or health professional about your specific circumstances.

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