Fetal Intolerance to Labor
Help for Babies Suffering Birthing Complications
What Is Fetal Distress?
Fetal intolerance to labor, also known as fetal distress, is a complication that occurs during the birthing process when an unborn baby suffers from a lack of oxygen. During labor, it is normal for the baby to experience a temporary drop in blood flow from the mother with each contraction; however, if the lack of oxygen lasts too long, the baby may sustain permanent brain damage or even die.
How Can Doctors Tell a Baby Is Distressed?
Doctors typically identify fetal distress through the baby’s abnormal heart rate. The medical term used to describe fetal distress or intolerance to labor is non-reassuring fetal status (NRFS).
The electronic fetal monitor’s invention in the 1970s gave doctors and nurses a way to “look in” on the baby during pregnancy and birth. There are two types of “fetal status”: reassuring and non-reassuring. Some indicators of non-reassuring fetal status (fetal distress) include:
- Baby’s heart rate is too high (tachycardia)
- Baby’s heart rate is too low (bradycardia)
- Baby’s heart rate is irregular (arrhythmia)
- Baby isn’t moving as much in the womb
- Baby’s stool (meconium) is found in the amniotic fluid
Not every change in the baby’s heart rate is bad news. Fluctuations happen naturally during the birthing process. But medical professionals should always be vigilant and check the fetal heart rate throughout labor. In most cases nowadays, it is continuously monitored with electronic fetal heart monitoring (EFM). A hand-held Doppler ultrasound device can also be used every 15 minutes in early labor or after every contraction in late labor.
Risk Factors Leading to Fetal Distress
There are some high-risk factors in pregnant mothers that can lead to non-reassuring fetal status. Physicians should be aware of the risk of fetal distress and prepared to act immediately when:
- Mother has preeclampsia
- Mother has gestational diabetes
- Mother is carrying more than one child (multiple birth)
- Mother is 35 or older
- Mother does not have the right amount of amniotic fluid
- Mother suffers from a chronic illness
Other Dangers Leading to Fetal Distress
Sometimes, things go wrong during the birthing process. Fetal intolerance to labor can occur when the baby is not getting enough oxygenated blood from the placenta or umbilical cord. These conditions can affect the flow of oxygen to a baby during labor:
- Uterine rupture
- Prolapsed umbilical cord
- Umbilical cord compression
- Prolonged labor
- Fetal infection
- Ineffective contractions
What Happens When Fetal Distress Is Detected?
Attending doctors and nurses must act quickly to help the distressed baby. Action taken by medical professionals may include:
- Giving the mother oxygen
- Repositioning the mother
- Giving the mother more intravenous fluids
- Adding fluid to cushion the umbilical cord
If the baby is still distressed after these actions are taken, the doctor must deliver the baby as soon as possible. If the doctor is properly trained, forceps or a vacuum extraction may be attempted; otherwise Cesarean section surgery must be performed immediately. Failure to act quickly can allow permanent damage to the baby.
What If a Doctor Doesn’t Correct Fetal Distress?
No matter who delivers your baby, they need to do two things:
- Monitor the baby’s status; and
- Intervene if the baby is in trouble.
Mothers-to-be and their families rely on doctors and nurses to recognize and respond appropriately to complications that may arise during the birthing process.
Responsible medical staff will monitor the fetal heart rate throughout labor and recognize signs that the baby is not tolerating labor. Once fetal distress is diagnosed, it is crucial that the doctors and nurses take immediate action to protect the baby and mother. If your doctor:
- Fails to diagnose potential complications before labor;
- Fails to properly monitor the heart rate and biometrics of the baby;
- Fails to take action quickly when fetal distress is detected; or
- Fails to perform an emergency C-section in time;
And your baby is injured; you may have a medical malpractice case.
Contact Us at Birth Injury Safety If Your Child Needs Help
If you suspect that events during labor may have caused injury to your baby, please do not hesitate to call or email Laura Brown. Any type of birth injury can require extended medical treatment and long-term special care for your child. The compassionate team at Birth Injury Safety will take the time to help you understand your legal rights after such a tragic incident. To learn how we can help, call (214) 974-4121.
- Merck Manual: Fetal Distress
- Radiopaedia: Fetal Heart Rate
- American Family Physician: Interpretation of EFM
- National Institutes of Health: Non-Reassuring Fetal Status