What causes fetal distress during labour?

You cannot predict what will happen during labour. Most women experience a painful but uncomplicated final hurdle to bring their baby in to the world. For some, although relatively uncommon, they experience fetal distress.

Fetal distress occurs when a baby becomes ill or is not coping with the process of labour very well.  In most cases, if you or your baby have not experienced any problems during pregnancy, it is unusual for fetal distress to take place.

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Causes and risk factors for fetal distress

  • Pre-eclampsia, a condition associated with hypertension in pregnant women 
  • Gestational diabetes
  • Restriction to the baby’s blood supply such as the placenta not working as it should or a problem with the umbilical cord
  • A prolonged labour with fast contractions
  • If the mother is overdue or older than 35
  • Baby stuck in the birth canal for too long
  • Synthetic hormones used during labour, such as oxytocin, have been associated with change in heart beat for babies.

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How do doctors recognise fetal distress?

During labour, doctors will monitor the baby’s heartbeat and will notice if there is any unusual changes in rhythm or frequency. If they have cause for concern, they will normally ask you to wear an electronic internal monitor so they can monitor baby’s heart rate more closely. This is inserted into the vagina once the water has broken.

Other tests to determine if there is a problem include:

  • Meconium in the amniotic fluid. This can obstruct the baby’s airways and cause breathing problems after delivery.
  • The doctor may want to collect some of the baby’s blood using a tube that is inserted into the vagina. They will check the blood for oxygen levels to make sure that everything is fine.
  • An ultrasound can reveal if the baby has the cord wrapped around the neck. This issue can restrict the blood supply from the placenta

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Find out what can be done to stop fetal distress on the next page…