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Signs of Distress in an Unborn Baby

By Stephanie Crumley Hill ; Updated June 13, 2017

Distress for an unborn baby can mean several things, but most commonly it means a lack of oxygen. This can be caused by a maternal lack of oxygen, a problem with the placenta or umbilical cord, or a problem with the baby. Most women receive routine ultrasounds, which allow their doctor to check for problems with the baby such as umbilical cord abnormalities or malformations. Most women are also routinely monitored during labor and delivery to watch for signs of fetal distress. If your unborn baby is in distress, your doctor may recommend an emergency delivery via Caesarean section.

Lack of Movement

After you have begun to feel your baby move, you will notice fairly regular patterns of activity. There will be times when you feel little or no movement because your baby is sleeping. However, if you notice an extended period of time when your baby is not moving, notify your obstetrician. Some doctors ask mothers for “kick counts” during the final weeks of pregnancy: You will record the number of times your baby kicks in one hour, as instructed by your obstetrician.


Vaginal bleeding can be a sign of placenta previa or a placental abruption, both of which can be serious for you and your baby. If you notice vaginal bleeding, call your obstetrician. If you have heavy vaginal bleeding that occurs suddenly, seek emergency care immediately.

Heart Rate

Your baby's heart rate will be monitored during your regular obstetrician visits. Your baby's heart rate will also be monitored to make sure your baby is responding well to the stresses of labor and delivery. If your baby's heart rate is too fast or too slow, or behaving in an unusual manner, your baby could be in distress. During contractions it is normal for your baby's heart rate to slow, but it should return to normal quickly after the contraction ends. A normal fetal heart rate is between 120 and 160 beats per minute.

Fetal Scalp Sampling

During labor, if distress is suspected, your obstetrician may take a small sample of blood from your baby's scalp. If the blood sample shows your baby's blood pH is too acidic, it indicates that your baby is not getting enough oxygen, and your obstetrician will recommend a Caesarean section.

Amniotic Fluid Levels

Your amniotic fluid levels will be measured using ultrasound. Too much amniotic fluid, called polyhydramnios, or too little amniotic fluid, called oligohydramnios, can indicate problems with your baby. These may or may not necessitate an early delivery.

Amniotic Fluid Staining

During labor when your amniotic sac breaks, your care providers will check the color of the amniotic fluid. Amniotic fluid with a green or brownish color indicates that your baby has passed meconium, or stool, during labor. This can be an indication of fetal distress, and your baby's condition will be monitored closely. Meconium inhaled into the lungs can cause problems in a newborn.

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