signs of fetal distress

What are the signs of fetal distress? This is a crucial question for expectant mothers, as health conditions can complicate pregnancy and jeopardize your baby.

When a doctor observes signs that your baby is ailing during pregnancy or labor and delivery, it’s often called fetal distress. If your healthcare provider fails to catch fetal distress and treat it in time, it can lead to serious health effects, birth injury, and even death.

Fetal distress presents signs and symptoms that your healthcare provider should watch out for throughout your pregnancy. When your health provider fails to catch these signs and symptoms, and your or your baby experiences serious medical complications, it may indicate medical malpractice. 

If you suspect you and your baby have suffered the effects of fetal distress, having an experienced medical malpractice team on your side can help. A professional medical malpractice team will help you understand your rights and fight for damages for your injuries.

Common Signs of Fetal Distress

The birth of a newborn should be joyous. No one wants to imagine their baby in distress. In most cases, even when fetal distress occurs, your health provider should be able to identify warning signs and prevent its progression. But sometimes mistakes happen. These signs can equal medical malpractice when ignored, discounted, or misdiagnosed.

We’ll go over some common signs of fetal distress.

Changes in a Baby’s Movement

Around the 28th week of pregnancy, a fetus will begin to move in utero consistently, including periods of contestant shifting, rest, and even hiccups. A sudden stop or a significant decrease in movements can signify fetal distress. For this reason, health providers should regularly check for noticeable changes in movement or movements that have stopped or decreased.

Maternal Hypertension and Eclampsia

Maternal hypertension—also called maternal high blood pressure—is elevated blood pressure during pregnancy that existed before pregnancy. Eclampsia is high blood pressure brought on by pregnancy. Both put a mother and her fetus at risk and can cause fetal distress, leading to numerous dangerous health outcomes. If you have high blood pressure or high blood pressure brought on by pregnancy, your healthcare provider should monitor it carefully.

Low Biophysical Profile

A fetal biophysical profile (BPP) is a noninvasive antepartum test for evaluating fetal well-being. Health providers use ultrasound to assess four discrete biophysical parameters: fetal movement, fetal tone, fetal breathing, and amniotic fluid volume. Each of the four ultrasound parameters is assigned a score of either 0 or 2 points (there is no 1 point), depending on whether specific criteria are met. A score of less than eight may suggest that the fetus is not receiving enough oxygen (fetal asphyxia) and is in fetal distress.

Abnormal Fetal Heart Rate

Babies who are thriving in utero have a constant, strong heartbeat. Changes in fetal heart rate, such as fetal tachycardia, bradycardia, and repetitive variable decelerations, can indicate fetal distress.

Extremely High or Low Maternal Weight Gain or Loss

It’s common and even expected that pregnant women gain weight, especially later in pregnancy. Depending on different factors, every woman will gain different amounts of weight. A health provider’s role is to understand the weight a patient should gain based on her health. If a pregnant woman gains too much weight, barely gains weight, or starts to lose weight, it could cause fetal distress. For this reason, health providers should monitor a patient’s weight gain and loss throughout pregnancy.

Meconium in the Amniotic Fluid

Meconium is a thick, tar-like substance in a baby’s intestines during pregnancy. Babies do not usually release meconium from their bowels until after birth. However, in some cases, a baby will have a bowel movement before birth, releasing the meconium into the amniotic fluid. If meconium is present in amniotic fluid, it could indicate fetal distress. 

Dangerous Amniotic Fluid Levels

A variety of medical tools can determine if a mother’s amniotic fluid levels in the womb are safe and normal. A low amniotic fluid level indicates a problem and can cause oxygen deprivation and permanent brain injury in an unborn child.

Abnormal Uterine Cramping

Mothers often experience cramping as their fetus grows and their uterus expands. But if intense cramping and severe back pain occur, it could indicate fetal distress. Your health provider should regularly check for cramping and monitor any abnormal contractions.

Vaginal Bleeding

Though most pregnant women experience some amount of vaginal bleeding, a large amount can indicate placental abruption, vasa previa, or placenta previa, which occurs when the placenta partially or wholly covers the mother’s cervix. All three conditions affect the placenta and blood flow and can threaten the health of a mother and her child.

Late Decelerations During Delivery

Late deceleration is an evident, gradual decrease in a fetal heart rate typically following a uterine contraction nearing delivery. The primary cause of a late declaration is uteroplacental insufficiency. Uteroplacental insufficiency decreases blood flow to the placenta and causes a reduced amount of blood and oxygen to the fetus. Maternal and fetal conditions that cause late decelerations include maternal dehydration, anemia, hypoxia, hypotension from epidural analgesia, uterine tachysystole, and placental abruption.

Causes of Fetal Distress

Certain risk factors can increase the chance of problems during pregnancy and delivery. These risk factors include multiple births, pre-eclampsia (high blood pressure), the mother being over 35 years of age, and having too much amniotic fluid (hydramnios). Other causes can include:

  • Misused medical tools—In some births, health professionals use medical devices like forceps and vacuum extractors to deliver the baby. Misusing these tools can harm the child.
  • Mispositioning—Only a few fetal positions are considered safe for delivery. When a fetus is mispositioned, delivery can put the mother and infant at risk.
  • Tangled umbilical cord—When an unborn baby is in utero or being delivered, their umbilical cord can get tangled around them, injuring a limb, or in more dangerous scenarios causing strangulation.
  • Blood circulation issues—When a fetus doesn’t get an adequate blood supply in utero, it isn’t getting sufficient oxygen either.
  • Placental abruption—The placenta supplies a fetus with nutrients. If it ruptures or completely detaches while a baby is still in the womb, the baby can experience a severe drop in oxygen supply, and the mother may suffer internal bleeding.
  • Uterine rupture—A uterine rupture is where the mother’s uterus ruptures and causes internal bleeding.  

These and other risk factors can place a mother and her unborn child in a potentially life-threatening situation. Identifying the causes and warning signs of fetal distress is your health care provider’s expected responsibility through every stage of your pregnancy. If your health care provider failed to identify any signs of fetal distress, its symptoms, or its causes, and it led to a serious injury, an experienced medical malpractice attorney can help you and your family decide your best course of action.

O’Connor, Parsons, Lane & Noble Can Help 

If you or someone you love suffered a serious injury resulting from fetal distress, O’Connor, Parsons, Lane & Noble can help you obtain compensation. We are well-versed in medical malpractice and negligence law and hold a record for the largest birth injury verdict in New Jersey. Our knowledgeable lawyers will fight for your rights every step of the way.

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