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Fetal Distress

By

Julie S. Moldenhauer

, MD, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia

Last full review/revision Jul 2021
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Fetal distress refers to signs before and during childbirth indicating that the fetus is not well.

Fetal distress is an uncommon complication of labor. It typically occurs when the fetus has not been receiving enough oxygen.

Fetal distress may occur when

Usually, doctors identify fetal distress based on an abnormal heart rate pattern in the fetus. Throughout labor, the fetus’s heart rate is monitored. It is usually monitored continuously with electronic fetal heart monitoring Fetal monitoring Labor is a series of rhythmic, progressive contractions of the uterus that gradually move the fetus through the lower part of the uterus (cervix) and birth canal (vagina) to the outside world... read more . Or a handheld Doppler ultrasound device may be used to check the heart rate every 15 minutes during early labor and after each contraction during late labor.

If a significant abnormality in the heart rate is detected, it can usually be corrected by the following:

  • Giving the woman oxygen

  • Increasing the amount of fluids given intravenously to the woman

  • Turning the woman on one side or the other

Did You Know...

  • An abnormal heart rate in a fetus may be the earliest sign of fetal distress.

Contractions that are too strong and/or too close together may cause fetal distress. If oxytocin Induction of Labor Induction of labor is the artificial starting of labor. Usually, labor is induced by giving the woman oxytocin, a drug that makes the uterus contract more frequently and more forcefully. The... read more was used to stimulate contractions, it is stopped immediately. The woman may be repositioned and given analgesics. If no drug was used to stimulate contractions, the woman may be given a drug that can slow labor (such as terbutaline, given by injection) to stop or slow the contractions.

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