Fetal Distress – How Your Baby Is Monitored During Labor?

Fetal Distress – How Your Baby Is Monitored During Labor?

Sometimes unfortunate things happen at the last moment of pregnancy that could end up in a sad state of affairs. So vigilance is the key to successful delivery of your child. Fetal distress is one such complication that if not constantly addressed, may create trouble for both the mother and the baby.

Fetal Distress

Fetal distress occurs when a baby seems to have compromised during the labor and delivery. The distress is usually determined by monitoring the heart rate of the baby. Presence of meconium (first stool of baby) can also indicate fetal distress in the womb.

Fetal distress is often interchangeably used with the term birth asphyxia which occurs when baby does not get an adequate supply of oxygen before or during labor.

What causes fetal distress?

The reason why your upcoming baby is facing distress could be varied. It can be umbilical cord issues, fetal anomalies, stress of labor or reactions to certain medication. It might occur due to abnormal positioning of the fetus, placenta problems or even due to multiple births.

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Fetal monitoring during labor

When a pregnant woman goes through labor, the baby is constantly monitored. One of the most common methods of monitoring the child is by using an electronic fetal monitor (EFM). In this technique, two straps are wrapped around the abdomen, one measures the heart rate of the baby, and the other evaluates contractions or uterine activity. The monitors are also used to determine whether the baby is experiencing distress due to each contraction.

Doctors may also use internal monitoring device placing one end of the device directly onto the scalp of the baby.

What should be the ideal fetal heart rate?

The results of the electronic fetal monitor are displayed on a monitor in the form graph. The doctor and nurses consistently monitors the numbers on the graphs and check if the heart rate is within adequate parameters. The ideal range should be in between 110 and 160 beats per minute.

Too high may indicate that the baby is in distress or fever. While too low may indicate lack of oxygen due to abnormal position, cord issues, etc. The monitoring can be divided into two categories; accelerations and decelerations.


It means short-term rise in the heart rate say 15 beats per minute which may last 15 seconds or more. Accelerations are completely normal as they indicate that the oxygen supply is adequate. Most of the babies will have spontaneous acceleration several times throughout the labor process.

However, the doctor may induce acceleration if they suspect about the wellbeing of the baby and can’t see acceleration. They would try below methods:

  • Gently rocking the abdomen of the mother
  • Pressing baby’s head with a finger via cervix
  • Administering a short burst of sound


Deceleration refers to temporary drops in the heart rate. It can be divided into three types:

1. Early Decelerations

These are generally normal and not a cause for concern. Early deceleration happens when the head of the baby is compressed. It mostly occurs during the later stages of labor when the baby descends via the birth canal. Sometimes it occurs during the labor when the baby is premature or in a state of a breech position.

2. Late Decelerations

These only occur when the contractions are at its peak. Normally, late decelerations are smooth and shallow dips in the heart rate that reflect the contraction causing them. As long as baby’s heart rate shows acceleration, the late decelerations are not a cause of concern. Late decelerations can also be a sign indicating that the baby isn’t getting appropriate oxygen.

3. Variable Decelerations

As the term denotes, variable decelerations are sharp dips in the fetal heart rate that looks dramatic. These decelerations mostly occur during labor when the umbilical cord gets temporarily compressed. It can also indicate that the blood flow is reduced when variable decelerations frequently occurs. Such variable patterns can be unsafe.

What to expect from the team of doctors?

Basically, the procedure for monitoring the heart rate of the baby is often painless and there is nothing you can do about it. However, there are few risks associated with this procedure, that’s why it’s conducted on patients during the labor and delivery. The team of doctors would perform:

  • Change of position,
  • Oxygen supply to mom
  • Instillation of fluid into amniotic cavity for thickening meconium (Amnioinfusion)
  • Instrumental delivery (forceps/vacuum)
  • C-Section

Make sure you freely put your questions forward to the doctor about all this procedure. It’s not necessary that if you had cesarean following fetal distress earlier, you will likely to face a similar situation in future pregnancies. Talk to your doctor and get your medical record check. This will certainly ease your concerns.