Pregnancy Home > Fetal Distress

Fetal distress occurs when a baby starts experiencing problems before delivery. In some cases, the baby's heart rate changes due to the umbilical cord being twisted or compressed, reducing the supply of blood and oxygen. In potentially life-threatening cases, a cesarean delivery may be needed.

Fetal Distress: Examples and Treatment Options

Despite the term "fetal distress" being used by doctors for years, there is no clear definition of what this really is. During labor, your healthcare team will monitor your baby's heartbeat using an electronic fetal device that continually monitors your baby's heart rate. This helps them know how the baby is doing during the delivery process and that he or she is getting enough oxygen.
 
It is normal for the baby's heart rate to change during labor, especially during contractions. But some changes may mean that your baby is having trouble (that is, experiencing fetal distress). The treatment will depend on the seriousness of the problem, how far along in your delivery you are, and whether the problem is likely to clear up on its own.
 
For example, the baby's heart rate may change if the umbilical cord becomes twisted or compressed and decreases the baby's supply of blood and oxygen. In this case, simply changing your position may relieve pressure on the umbilical cord, and the baby's heart rate should return to normal. For some cases of fetal distress, you may also need to be put on oxygen. If the baby starts experiencing some type of distress after moving into the birth canal, your doctor may speed up the delivery by using forceps or a vacuum.
 
In serious and potentially life-threatening situations, you may need a cesarean delivery.
 
Written by/reviewed by:
Last reviewed by: Arthur Schoenstadt, MD
Last updated/reviewed:
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