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Paul M. D'Amore
Paul M. D'Amore

Founding Member, Trial Lawyer

Fetal Distress: Symptoms, Causes, Effects on the Baby, and Malpractice

Health Care Providers Need to Watch for Dangerous Warning Signs in Unborn Babies

The idea that your soon-to-be-born baby could be under distress is enough to make any mother worry.

But how would you know if it were happening? And what exactly does the term “fetal distress” mean in the medical sense?

There is a lot of confusion about fetal distress, and even some medical professionals working in women’s hospitals might be misguided as to what it means.

Fetal distress refers to any sign that an unborn baby is endangered, struggling, or unwell. It is a broadly applicable term that refers to the symptom of a problem, not the cause.

Many different conditions can lead to fetal distress. It is a doctor, nurse, or midwife’s job to understand what those are.

Unfortunately, many people confuse the term “fetal distress” with a different condition, birth asphyxia, in which a baby does not have an adequate oxygen supply. While birth asphyxia is extremely serious and does often lead to distress, many other issues entirely unrelated to oxygen supply can give rise to fetal distress symptoms too.

When doctors, midwives, and nurses don’t know what to look for — or fail to engage in proper monitoring — they can miss critical, life-endangering signs of fetal distress.

As the American Pregnancy Association points out, confusion about the meaning of “fetal distress” has led to inaccurate diagnoses and improper treatment, which can be deadly for both mother and child.

Signs and Symptoms of Fetal Distress

Sometimes, mothers notice signs of fetal distress on their own. These symptoms might include:

  • Decreased movement by the baby in the womb
  • Cramping
  • Vaginal bleeding
  • Excessive weight gain
  • Inadequate weight gain
  • The “baby bump” in the mother’s tummy is not progressing or looks smaller than expected

Some mothers have also a reported a sense that “something doesn’t seem right.” While, in most cases, these anxieties alone are not symptomatic of fetal distress, you may want to visit your doctor for reassurance.

Your care providers should take any sign, symptom, or health concern seriously and then examine you accordingly.

Some signs of fetal distress can only be detected by a doctor or health care provider. These include:

  • Abnormal fetal heart rate
  • Abnormal fetal heart rhythm
  • Abnormal amniotic fluid levels
  • Abnormal results of a Biophysical Profile (BPP)
  • High blood pressure in the mother
  • Failure to progress / failure to thrive

Causes of Fetal Distress

Many conditions can cause, or contribute to, fetal distress. These include:

  • Abnormal positioning of the baby
  • Anemia
  • Contractions that are too strong or too close together
  • Dystocia
  • Eclampsia / Preeclampsia
  • Forceps / vacuum extraction (when misused)
  • Intrauterine growth retardation (IUGR)
  • Macrosomia (unusually large baby)
  • Meconium (from the baby’s stool) in the amniotic fluid
  • Oligohydraminos (amniotic fluid deficiency)
  • Placental abruption
  • Pregnancy-induced hypertension (PIH)
  • Post-term pregnancy
  • Problems during labor (e.g. prolonged labor, arrested labor)
  • Uterine rupture

Effects on the Baby

Fetal distress is a sign that something is wrong. Most cases are serious, and any sign of fetal distress should be treated as a medical emergency.

Understandably, parents are eager to learn about the potential effects of distress on the baby. Remember, however, that fetal distress is a symptom of an underlying cause. The effects will depend on the condition causing distress.

However, all causes of fetal distress have the potential to lead to serious complications, including permanent injury or disability or death. Some can also lead to the death of the mother.

Monitoring, Diagnosis, and Treatment

Monitoring is the key to identifying fetal distress, treating it before it leads to irreversible complications, and preventing it in the first place.

The most common form of monitoring is Fetal Heart Rate (FHR) monitoring. Through FHR monitoring, health care providers can detect problems related to heart rate and rhythm, oxygen levels, and many other common causes of fetal distress. Ultrasound and other imaging or monitoring may be appropriate as well.

Just as importantly, paying careful attention to overall health and vital signs throughout pregnancy, labor, and delivery is critical to a successful birth.

Treatment depends on the underlying cause, and may range from something as simple as changing the mother’s position or providing fluids to something as urgent as emergency c-section surgery.

Mismanaged Fetal Distress: Birth Injury and Medical Malpractice

Doctors, nurses, and midwives have a duty to monitor both the mother and baby for signs of fetal distress, to accurately diagnose any conditions causing distress, and to provide effective treatment immediately. Failure to do so may constitute medical malpractice in Maryland and in Washington, D.C.  

Talk to an Experienced Maryland Birth Injury Lawyer Today

You and your child deserve thorough, attentive, and expert medical care. You depend on your doctors and health care team to identify problems, diagnose dangerous conditions, and respond to them right away. There is simply no excuse for fetal distress that arises or gets worse because of preventable medical negligence.

If you or your baby has suffered and you think a health care provider’s carelessness might be to blame, please contact D’Amore Law right away. Our experienced team of Maryland birth injury attorneys is here to fight for you.

Call 410-324-2000 or contact us online to get started with a free consultation today.

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