Fetal Distress Signs: A Warning You Can’t Ignore

Every mother hopes for a smooth pregnancy and delivery. But sometimes, unpreventable (or preventable) circumstances put mother and baby in for a bumpy ride. Fetal distress signs are the “red flags” that alert mothers and doctors that a baby’s in trouble. Catching and treating them on time can save a baby’s life.  

Baby being monitored after childbirth.

What is Fetal Distress?

Fetal distress is a blanket term that means a fetus isn’t well.  Also called “nonreassuring fetal status”, it can occur during pregnancy, labor, or delivery. The most common cause of fetal distress is a lack of oxygen. 

There are many reasons why a baby might not get enough oxygen in the womb. They include:

  • Low amniotic fluid
  • Hypertension during pregnancy
  • Umbilical cord issues (such as true knots) 
  • Pregnancy that lasts 42 weeks or more
  • The baby’s first bowel movement, meconium, contaminates the amniotic fluid
  • The baby is in an abnormal position in the womb
  • Uterine rupture
  • The mother has preeclampsia
  • Prolonged labor 

Fetal Distress Signs 

Since fetal distress signs can occur any time during pregnancy, pregnant women should know what they are. A doctor may not always be present to help. If you’re pregnant and notice any of these signs, call your doctor or head to the emergency room.

  • Baby is less active or stops moving in the womb
  • Abnormal amount of amniotic fluid
  • Baby’s heart rate is too fast or too slow
  • The mother experiences vaginal bleeding and/or cramping
  • Mother has high blood pressure
  • Abnormal maternal weight gain
  • Meconium (baby’s first bowel movement) in amniotic fluid 
  • Abnormal biophysical profile (BPP) results (The BPP measures fetal breathing, movement, and tone, as well as amniotic fluid volume).

If fetal distress signs occur during labor and delivery, doctors should respond to them right away. They might administer oxygen, fluids, or medication. Or they might have the mother change position during delivery. 

But sometimes a baby in distress needs to leave the womb for treatment. In that case, the medical team will order an emergency C-section

Complications from Fetal Distress

Fetal distress signs often indicate the baby isn’t getting enough oxygen. When babies fail to receive immediate care when in distress, a lack of oxygen can cause birth injuries. 

Birth injuries stemming from fetal distress include:

  • Hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy (HIE). This is a brain injury that occurs when a baby doesn’t receive enough oxygen during delivery. It can lead to long-term or permanent health problems. 
  • Cerebral palsy. A motor disability that affects a child’s muscle tone, posture, and movement. 
  • Behavioral/emotional disorders
  • Impaired hearing or eyesight
  • Epilepsy and seizures
  • Intellectual and developmental disabilities

Fetal distress may also lead to stillbirth. If the baby’s oxygen supply is cut off, but fetal distress signs are ignored, parents may lose their child. 

It’s rare for doctors to ignore fetal distress signs. A competent gynecologist and birth team will monitor both mother and baby constantly. But failure to catch fetal distress and intervene on time can constitute medical malpractice. We’ll explain how that can happen below. 

Child with permanent disability because fetal distress signs were ignored.

Fetal Distress Signs and Malpractice

Not every episode of fetal distress (or resulting complication) is a medical professional’s fault. Injuries resulting from fetal distress aren’t always an indication of medical negligence or malpractice. 

 So when are doctors guilty of medical malpractice? When they don’t adhere to the standard of care, they commit medical negligence. (The standard of care refers to the procedures a doctor should follow during a given medical event.) When a doctor’s negligent actions harm a patient, it’s medical malpractice.  

These negligent actions can lead to prolonged fetal distress, birth injuries, or stillbirth:

  • Failure to monitor a high-risk pregnancy
  • Failure to recognize fetal distress signs 
  • Delaying treatment or intervention 
  • Misusing forceps or a vacuum when delivering a baby, causing fetal distress

During a fetal distress event, every minute counts. So waiting just a few minutes too long can lead to serious complications. 

Waiting too long to file a medical malpractice claim can have serious consequences as well. You may miss out on holding a negligent doctor accountable. You’ll also lose your chance to recover damages that can pay for your injured child’s present and future medical needs.

Every state limits how long you have to file a malpractice lawsuit. This is called the statute of limitations, and it’s usually just 2 or 3 years. 

If you believe your doctor mishandled fetal distress signs and injured your baby, now’s the time to act. Click here to schedule a free consultation with our expert birth injury lawyers.