Recognizing the signs of fetal distress can help reduce the risk of permanent injury in a newborn baby. Although mothers may notice decreased fetal movement or other symptoms that their babies are in danger or struggling, some signs of fetal distress, like abnormal heart rate and amniotic fluid level changes, are only detectible by a medical provider. When healthcare providers fail to properly monitor the mother and baby during pregnancy and delivery, or they fail to act when life-endangering signs of fetal distress are present, disabling or deadly birth injuries can occur.
Decreased Fetal Movement
Prior to labor and delivery, fetal movement is one of the surest signs of a healthy baby. If an expectant mother notices that the baby is not moving as much as normal, she should try to elicit movement. Sometimes babies will sleep in the womb, but a sugary drink, like juice, or a change in activity can generate fetal movement. If a mother experiences minimal fetal movement, it often signals fetal distress and warrants a call to the doctor. Doctors should act quickly if a mother reports this symptom.
Abnormal Fetal Heart Rate
Doctors monitor a baby’s heart rate at each prenatal appointment. An abnormally fast or slow heart rate can indicate fetal distress. Doctors should perform additional tests if they notice a change in the baby’s heart rate to limit the risk of birth injuries.
During labor and delivery, it’s common for hospitals to monitor the baby’s heart rate as well. A sudden decrease in heart rate often indicates a lack of oxygen to the baby. This is a medical emergency, and often requires a cesarean section or other intervention to protect the baby.
Amniotic Fluid Level Changes
Too much or too little amniotic fluid can signal fetal distress. Doctors measure the size of an expectant mother’s abdomen at each appointment, and measuring unusually large or small can indicate a problem with amniotic fluid. During an ultrasound, the ultrasonographer will also measure amniotic fluid. Abnormally low or high amniotic fluid levels can cause oxygen deprivation and subsequent birth injuries.
Doctors, nurses, or other healthcare providers who dismiss the signs of fetal distress can be held liable for medical malpractice if birth injuries occur.