What Is Fetal Distress and Does It Mean Having A C-Section?
The term ‘fetal distress’ means the baby’s heartbeat is dropping and the oxygen supply isn’t what it should be. Your doctor can usually see this drop in heart rate on the baby monitor. Other signs would be the baby’s movement patterns change or there’s no movement at all.
Fetal distress is most common during labor but it can also occur before going into labor, but more on that in a minute.
If your baby is diagnosed with fetal distress during labor, this is not always a good sign for a vaginal delivery.
Does it necessarily mean a C-Section? Not always, but it’s a good sign that one will be needed. In fact, fetal distress is one of the more common reasons a doctor will recommend a C-Section birth.
This is exactly why I had my first C-Section. I was in labor for over 20 hours without dilating beyond 6 cm, which is commonly referred to as ‘failure to progress‘. It was at that time my doctor said to me,
“Your baby is experiencing fetal distress, we’re going to have to do a C-Section”.
I was terrified. What is Fetal distress?
When fetal distress is determined, there’s really is no more time to waste hoping things start to progress normally because now the baby is being negatively impacted, so the next course of action will be a C-Section. If your baby can be delivered quickly via C-Section, fetal distress can be relieved and the baby is often fine.
But Does Fetal Distress During Labor Always Mean A C-Section?
Not always. What muddies the water is that not all doctors agree on how slow a fetal heart rate should be and for how long it should be tolerated before a C-Section is needed. Doctor’s definitions vary.
Some doctor’s consider fetal distress as the slowing down of the fetal heart rate at a point where the heart beat shouldn’t be slowing down. Other doctors consider fetal distress as a significant slowing of the heart rate for more than several minutes, and every doctor has a different definition of several minutes.
In other words the need for a C-Section is sometimes based on your doctor’s definition of fetal distress.
Could the term be overused and abused? Yes, I think it could be. For instance if a doctor’s in a hurry and wants to get a long labor with ‘failure to progress’ moving, a small blip on the heartbeat monitor could be used as a reason for a C-Section. But do you really want to take a chance?
How can you know for sure if your baby’s fetal distress requires a C-Section?
I personally believe that most doctors are offering the best and safest course of treatment based on their medical knowledge, but we don’t want them to take unnecessary shortcuts either.
At BabyCenter.co.uk there’s an excellent article on how doctors diagnose fetal distress, what some of the options are when distress is detected and how soon a C-Section will be needed, if at all. It will give you a little background on how fetal distress is determined, the severity of distress, what you might be able to do to relieve distress and help you to know the right questions to ask your doctor.
You can read the article here: http://www.babycentre.co.uk/a1044907/fetal-distress.
Fetal Distress Can Occur Before Active Labor Too!
Fetal distress during labor is not the only time this can occur. It can also occur before active labor. This is fairly rare but the signs are the same. The heartbeat can slow way down and there is little to no movement before ever going into labor.
Very sadly this was something that recently happened to a cousin of mine who was just past her due date when she experienced no movement at all. She knew something wasn’t right so she immediately went to the hospital. When monitoring the baby they heard a heartbeat and said all was fine so she went home. Still feeling no movement the next day, she went back to the hospital, but it was too late, she has sadly lost her baby
In hindsight, the first time she went to the hospital feeling no movement was when an immediate C-Section should have been performed. Unfortunately she put her instincts aside and followed the doctor’s suggestion to go home.
It’s normal to experience less movement as you get closer to your due date, so I don’t want to make anyone fearful or raise any undue red flags, but listen to your instincts. If something doesn’t feel right, call your doctor, and certainly don’t hesitate to be persistent if your instincts are telling you something is wrong. You many need a C-Section but at least your baby will be alive.
Because fetal distress can potentially cause things like cerebral palsy, neurological injuries or even death, it’s nothing to fool around with. So if you ever suspect or feel something isn’t right, be persistent with getting it thoroughly checked out. But more importantly, take the time to understand the signs of fetal distress, how it’s monitored and what the indications are. Just like we don’t want doctors to perform unnecessary C-Sections, we don’t want doctors to disregard obvious warning signs either.
The more you can educate yourself about your pregnancy and the health of your baby the easier it will be for you to effectively communicate with your doctor and feel that his decisions are the best for you and your baby.
Photo courtesy of ”imagerymajestic” and freedigitalphotos.net