Written by attorney Christopher Michael Mellino

Fetal distress: signs, causes and treatment

There can be indications of fetal distress ( at any point before or during labor, and it results from oxygen deprivation. Recognizing signs of this and then taking the appropriate measures to prevent birth injury ( is critical because lack of oxygen can cause brain damage.

Signs of Fetal Distress

One of the signs of fetal distress is a change in heart rate. It may decelerate (decrease) below the baseline heart rate. Another is prolonged bradycardia, where the heart rate is too slow.

Sometimes there are changes in the baby's movement. The pattern might be different or there may be no movement at all. Another sign of fetal distress is if the baby’s first stool (meconium) passes while still in the womb.

If membranes (waters) break prematurely -- before labor has even begun – it may indicate fetal distress. It would be considered too early if membranes break before 37 weeks' gestation. Other signs that may be present in the mother include high blood pressure, vaginal spotting/bleeding, and cramping/pelvic pain.

Common Causes of Fetal Distress

Some causes of fetal distress are maternal. Mothers who are expecting multiples (twins, triplets, etc.) have an increased risk of fetal distress. Gestational diabetes, which is high blood sugar levels present during pregnancy, can result in a larger baby, making delivery more difficult and impeding oxygen.

Preeclampsia is a common cause of fetal distress. It is evidenced by higher protein levels in the urine and blood pressure. Diagnosing this condition in the mother is critical; otherwise, it can turn into eclampsia, which is much more serious. Eclampsia complications can include placental abruption (placenta separates from uterine wall), heart failure, stroke, seizures and even death.

Oligohydramnios, or low amniotic fluid, is another condition that may interfere with the baby’s oxygen. Although it can occur at any time during the pregnancy, it most often happens in the last trimester.

On the other hand, too much amniotic fluid, or polyhydramnios, also can interfere with oxygen levels. It is a higher risk when the mother is past the due date. This can cause intrauterine growth restriction, or low birth weight.

If the umbilical cord becomes compressed, it can stop the flow of oxygen to the baby’s brain. An example is cord prolapse, in which it becomes trapped as a result of dropping into the cervix before the baby does.

Treatment of Fetal Distress

The source of what is causing the distress first must be discovered. If still pregnant, a fetal monitor may be used to keep an eye on the baby’s heart rate. IV fluids could be necessary to help increase oxygen in the mother’s blood.

In other circumstances, it may be necessary to deliver the baby quickly. Vacuum extraction or forceps might be devices used to assist with delivery, or it could lead to an emergency C-section.

Determining if a doctor missed signs of fetal distress or if appropriate measures were taken to reduce the chance of injury sometimes can be challenging. It may help to talk with Ohio medical malpractice attorneys in Cleveland ( from the law firm of Mellino Robenalt. These knowledgeable attorneys might be able to verify if a birth injury claim for medical malpractice ( is warranted for fetal distress.

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