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Fetal distress is a term used to describe a condition where a baby is not receiving enough oxygen during labour and delivery.
During normal labour, the contractions temporarily interrupt the oxygen delivered to the baby. A healthy, term baby will typically have sufficient capacity to tolerate these brief interruptions in oxygen supply.
There are, however, various complications that may occur during labour that may interrupt or decrease the oxygen supply to the baby’s brain causing fetal distress, such as:
- Umbilical cord compression – caused by, for example, the cord kinking, being tightly wrapped around baby’s neck, or proceeding down the birth canal ahead of the baby;
- Uterine rupture;
- Placental abruption; and
- Abnormal contraction pattern (too many contractions, contractions lasting too long, or not enough resting time between contractions), especially if labour has been induced or augmented.
A baby will typically show signs of inadequate oxygen supply with changes in their heart rate. This is why there is so much emphasis on monitoring the baby’s heart rate during labour and delivery – it is the only way of monitoring fetal wellbeing during the process of labour.
Some babies may be more vulnerable to the stress of labour than others and require closer monitoring of their heart rate pattern, such as
- Babies whose growth has been less than expected during pregnancy;
- Babies with lower or higher volumes of amniotic fluid;
- Pregnancies with more than one baby;
- Pregnancies involving high blood pressure;
- Pregnancies involving diabetes; and
- Preterm or post term babies.
A baby may also show signs of stress by releasing meconium (or poo) before they are born. A pregnant woman may pass greenish or brown stained fluid vaginally when this happens or this may be seen when a baby is delivered.
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Understanding Birth Injuries
- Labour and delivery