Fetal Distress

What is Fetal Distress?

Fetal distress is a term used to describe significant fetal hypoxia and/or fetal acidosis. Fetal hypoxia is when the fetus does not receive adequate oxygen. Inadequate fetal oxygenation causes an accumulation of acid in the blood of the fetus, or fetal acidosis.

Sometimes ‘fetal distress’ is used as a general term referring to indications that the fetus may be unwell, such as after detecting an abnormal fetal heart rate. The terms “reassuring heart rate” and “non reassuring heart rate” often specify an assessment of the fetal heart rate before fetal distress is confirmed.

If indicators of fetal distress are ignored or left undetected, it jeopardizes the health of the child. Fetal distress may be the result of various adverse events including placental abruption, uterine rupture, and cord prolapse. Signs of fetal distress may include:

  • Non-reassuring fetal heart rate (bradycardia = abnormally slow, or tachycardia = abnormally fast)

  • Other characteristics of abnormal heart rate (i.e., lack of variability)

  • Low blood fetal pH — fetal scalp blood testing

  • Meconium in the amniotic fluid

  • Low Apgar score at birth

Diagnosis of Fetal Distress

An abnormal fetal heart rate is usually the first indicator of fetal distress. The heart rate must be monitored even more diligently in the event of detected bradycardia or tachycardia. Locating the cause of distress and remedying it may result in a return to normal heart activity. This may be as simple as turning the mother on one side or the other to reposition the baby more favourably for oxygenation.

However, if the remedies do not restore the heart to a normal rate, or if blood oxygen levels indicate acidosis (fetal scalp blood testing), the baby should be delivered immediately.


Fetal distress may be the result of a serious antepartum complication, including placental abruption, uterine rupture, or cord prolapse. Such adverse events in labour require an emergency delivery, often by caesarean section. A sustained period of fetal distress poses great risks to the fetus. If left unresolved, the child may suffer traumatic injury to the brain or not survive at all.

Fetal Distress & Cerebral Palsy

Approximately 20% of children with cerebral palsy experienced fetal distress. Almost one-third of children with cerebral palsy experienced at least one adverse obstetric event, including cord prolapse, placental abruption and uterine rupture, causing fetal distress. Over time, a lack of oxygen and nutrients to the fetal brain causes permanent injury to the child.

Cerebral palsy caused by a mismanagement of fetal distress is a form of obstetrical negligence worth investigating. Unfortunately, BC patients are blocked from accessing hospital investigations conducted after a traumatic birth. Only experienced medical malpractice lawyers can get to the bottom of what took place.

Should you be interested in an assessment by independent medical experts, please contact Renaud Law Group to hear about your options.

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