Fetal Distress: Failure to Recognize and Treat the Signs and Symptoms May Be Medical Malpractice

Pregnancy is an exciting time for prospective parents. Fortunately, most children in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island are born healthy. We are fortunate to have excellent medical facilities in these Provinces, with many skilled and caring doctors and nurses. Unfortunately, medical errors do still happen. Most people would be surprised to know how often. One of the most common medical error mistakes the medical malpractice lawyers at Wagners see relates to a failure to appropriately treat signs of fetal distress.

The term fetal distress refers to the presence of signs in a pregnant woman that suggest that the fetus may be unwell. Fetal distress can occur during labour and delivery, or it can occur before labour has commenced. Fetal distress means that the baby is in jeopardy. Because of this, if it is not caught and treated in a timely fashion, tragic longterm health consequences can result. Children born with cerebral palsy would often have shown signs of fetal distress in utero that went untreated.

There are numerous symptoms and signs that doctors, nurses, midwives and new parents should be on the lookout for during pregnancy.

Cramps, bleeding or spotting may be a sign of placental abruption, which can result in your baby not receiving enough oxygen. It should be reported to a doctor immediately.

Decreased movement felt by a mother is a sign of fetal distress. Pregnant mothers will notice their babies moving and kicking frequently. Some recommend that they spend some time each day counting their baby’s kicks. If a marked decline in movement is noted, doctors should be advised immediately. Keep in mind, however, that as babies bear the end of the pregnancy, they will have less room to move around and its movements may weaken or decrease in frequency as a result.

While there is no correct amount of weight to gain during pregnancy, gaining too little or too much weight may be a sign of fetal distress. A baby that is not growing may not be receiving the nutrients it needs. A baby that grows too big may be an indication that the mother is suffering from gestational diabetes. Prudent doctors and nurses will carefully monitor a mother’s weight gain over the course of her pregnancy.

Similarly, doctors should be monitoring a mother’s blood pressure regularly. High blood-pressure during your pregnancy may indicate a condition called preeclampsia, which can cause fetal distress. If the water breaks early, this may indicate that the fetus is in distress. Any time before 37 weeks of gestation is considered early and your baby may require help breathing if he or she is born before this time.

Doctors and nurses are also trained to monitor a fetal heart rate directly through cardiotocography. This will give a fairly accurate picture of the baby’s general health. The baby is considered to be in fetal distress where the following non-reassuring patterns are seen on cardiotocography:

  • increased or decreased fetal heart rate (tachycardia and bradycardia), especially during and after a contraction
  • decreased variability in the fetal heart rate
  • late decelerations

Fetal distress is also sometimes measured through biochemical signs, assessed by collecting a small sample of baby’s blood from a scalp prick through the open cervix in labor. This can show fetal metabolic acidosis and/or elevated fetal blood lactate levels (from fetal scalp blood testing) indicating the baby has something called lactic acidosis.

Your doctors and nurses have a legal duty and are responsible for monitoring you and your fetus for signs and symptoms of fetal distress. Failing to do so appropriately can have tragic, longterm effects on a baby’s wellbeing. If you are concerned that your healthcare professional failed in this responsibility, contact a medical malpractice lawyer today.

Back to News & Insights