Improper Fetal Monitoring and Birth Injury

During labor and delivery, medical staff must make sure that the baby is tolerating the process well. This means making sure that the baby is receiving enough oxygen and is not showing signs of fetal distress. Staff use electronic fetal monitors to do this, interpreting the readouts to check progress. Staff can improperly interpret the readouts or use the monitors incorrectly. When this happens, they can miss signs that the baby is in distress, missing an opportunity to avert injury.


brain injury in infantsObstetricians and nurses must carefully monitor a baby during labor and delivery in order to make sure the baby is getting enough oxygen and is not in fetal distress.  Signs of fetal distress include such things as decreased movement of the baby or changes in the fetal heart rate on a fetal monitor. The primary way to detect whether a baby is in distress is through electronic fetal monitoring, which records both the mother’s contractions and the baby’s heart beat in response to contractions.  Despite its standard use in hospitals today, sometimes doctors and nurses still fail to monitor their patients or improperly interpret monitor tracings. This can lead to debilitating birth injuries for the baby.

Fetal Monitoring and Birth Injury Prevention

There are two methods of fetal monitoring – external and internal.  External monitoring is done by strapping a belt-like device around a mother’s abdomen.  The device records the mother’s contractions and baby’s heart rate. Internal monitoring involves attaching an electrode to the baby’s scalp once the mother’s cervix is dilated to 2-3 centimeters and the baby’s head is engaged. The internal fetal monitor may provide a more accurate measurement of the baby’s heart rate and the mother’s contractions than the external monitor. In both methods, the data is transferred through the wires on the monitors to a machine that records and prints the information on strips for doctors and nurses to read.

The typical fetal monitor strip consists of two rows of graphs. The top shows the fetal heart rate in beats per minute and the bottom graph charts the mother’s contractions. During labor, when a mother has a contraction, the baby’s heartbeat will drop slightly but will return to normal once the contraction is over. The fetal monitoring strip shows any discrepancies in this pattern. For example, if the monitor shows that a baby’s heart rate does not recover immediately after the contraction or if there is a deceleration in the baby’s heart rate after the contraction (a “late” deceleration), there may be a problem with the baby.

Labor monitoring with an external monitor, intrauterine pressure catheter, pulse oximeter and fetal scalp monitor

Understanding Normal and Abnormal Fetal Heart Rates

A baby’s normal heart rate (or “baseline”) is between about 120 and 160 beats per minute.  Fluctuations in the fetal heart rate are called “variability.” Short-term variability is when the baby’s heart rate moves up and down by a range of about 5 to 10 beats per minute from beat to beat and shows on the fetal heart rate tracings as a somewhat jagged line. This is considered normal. Long-term variability is when the baby’s heart rate moves up and down by a range of 6 to 25 beats per minute over the course of a minute.  It also shows as a jagged line on fetal monitor tracings and is a good sign.

A baby’s heart rate is said to be “reassuring” if the fetal heart rate pattern has normal variability with accelerations and normal baseline. This means that the baby is well oxygenated and is tolerating labor and delivery well.

Classifying Normal and Abnormal Fetal Heart Rates

During labor and delivery, electronic fetal monitoring (EFM) is used to:

  • Ensure the baby has enough oxygen, and
  • Reduce the risk of neonatal complications due to oxygen deprivation.

Professionals use electronic fetal heart rate monitoring to spot signs of fetal hypoxia and intervene appropriately to eliminate or reduce the risk of HIE and other birth injuries. Fetal heart rate monitoring helps medical professionals assess how well a baby is tolerating labor. If fetal heart rate tracings begin to be concerning, medical professionals should act to intervene.

In 2008, experts proposed a three category system for classifying fetal heart rate (FHR) tracings. The system divides fetal heart rate tracings into three categories:

  • Category I Fetal Heart Tracings: Category I fetal heart rate tracings are considered normal. These tracings include all of the following:
    • A baseline FHR between 110-160 beats per minute
    • A moderate level of baseline FHR variability (meaning that the FHR waivers only moderately from the baseline level)
    • Absence of late or variable decelerations (FHR does not decelerate after a contraction)
    • Presence or absence of both FHR accelerations, and early decelerations
  • Category II Fetal Heart Tracings: Category II fetal heart rate tracings are considered ‘indeterminate.’ The large majority of tracings fall into this category. Some characteristics of Category II tracings are considered benign, while others are more urgent and may require prompt interventions to avoid brain injury due to oxygen deprivation. Some qualities of category II fetal heart rate tracings are:
    • Bradycardia, or slow heart rate (when baseline FHR variability is also present)
    • Tachycardia, or fast heart rate
    • Minimal or marked baseline variability
    • Absent baseline variability with no recurrent FHR decelerations
    • Absence of induced accelerations in FHR after stimulation of the baby
  • Category III Fetal Heart Tracings: Category III fetal heart rate tracings are considered abnormal and require appropriate intervention, which often includes prompt delivery, often via emergency C-section. If Category III fetal heart rate tracings occur, if they are allowed to continue, it is likely that fetal brain injury has already occurred. Category III tracings include the following:
    • Absent baseline variability and recurrent late decelerations
    • Absent baseline variability and recurrent variable decelerations
    • Absent baseline variability and bradycardia
    • Sinusoidal pattern (a pattern that is uniform but does not resemble a normal FHR pattern)

The Pitfalls of the Three-Category EFM Classification System

Because the three-category system of classification includes a broad Category II section, some researchers find that this system is less useful for providing medical professionals with guidelines for intervening when concerning heart rate tracings show up. Some researchers (such as Parer and Ikeda) have developed more granular 5-category systems for EFM classification that help subdivide Category II tracings into further divisions, providing medical professionals with more precise categories for various heart rate tracing patterns.

Electronic fetal heart rate monitoring is a critical tool for understanding how a baby is tolerating labor. If medical professionals do not act on concerning fetal heart rate tracings, they are putting the baby at risk for injury. During labor and delivery, a well-trained and experienced medical staff should be watching the fetal monitoring strips for concerning signs, and they should notify other staff, conduct medical interventions, and effectuate if the baby’s heart rate drops or worsens. If they do not, it is medical malpractice, because their actions increase the baby’s chances of being injured by oxygen deprivation.

Signs and Symptoms of Fetal Distress (Non-Reassuring Heart Tracings)

A heart rate greater than 160 (tachycardia), a heart rate lower than 110 to 120 for an extended period of time (bradycardia), decrease fetal heart rate variability, variable decelerations which become longer-lasting,  late (the fetal heart rate returns to baseline after the contraction has ended),  are considered “non-reassuring” or an indication that the baby is in fetal distress. This may signal that the baby is not getting enough oxygen and if not delivered soon, could suffer birth asphyxia (hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy).

Fetal Distress and Birth Injuries: Causes

There are several serious conditions that can occur during labor and delivery that cause the fetal heart rate to become non-reassuring. These include:

  • Umbilical cord problems like umbilical cord compression, umbilical cord prolapse (umbilical cord precedes the baby’s exit from the uterus) or nuchal cord (cord wrapped around baby’s neck).
  • Placental abruption (placenta separates from uterine wall).
  • Uterine rupture (a tear in the wall of the uterus, usually at the site of a previous c-section incision).
  • Labor contractions are too strong, too long, or too frequent –sometimes as a result of labor induction medications such as oxytocin (Pitocin) and Cytotec.
  • Uteroplacental insufficiency (insufficient amount of blood flowing to the placenta).
  • Polyhydramnios (excessive amniotic fluid) or oligohydramnios (insufficient amniotic fluid)
  • Cephalopelvic disproportion (baby’s head is too big to fit through mother’s pelvis), macrosomia (large baby), breech (baby is positioned in a buttocks first or foot-first position instead of head-down), or other delivery presentation which causes the baby to get caught in the birth canal.

Preventing Fetal Distress and Birth Injuries

Obstetricians and nurses must carefully review fetal monitor strips throughout labor and delivery to ensure fetal heart tones are reassuring and the baby is getting enough oxygen.  If non-reassuring conditions occur, appropriate and timely actions must be taken. Generally, nursing interventions are attempted first to restore normal oxygenation to the baby. These include the administration of supplemental oxygen, changes in maternal position, increasing intravenous fluids, and the administration of medications that subdue contractions and maximize placental blood flow. If fetal heart tones remain non-reassuring despite nursing interventions, the fetus should be delivered by emergency cesarean section.  Emergency cesarean section should be performed 5 to 30 minutes depending on the circumstances.


Legal Help for Fetal Monitoring Errors, HIE and Birth Injury

Birth Injury Attorneys | Reiter & Walsh, PC | HIE, Birth Asphyxia, Cerebral Palsy, Birth Injury AttorneysThe sole purpose of the fetal heart monitor is to allow medical staff to identify any signs of fetal distress and to take swift and appropriate action. If a healthcare provider ignores the fetal monitor strips or misinterprets them and oxygen deprivation and brain damage results, it is medical malpractice. Birth injury cases require specific, extensive knowledge of both law and medicine. In order to achieve the best results, our team believes it’s critical to specifically and exclusively handle birth injury cases. Reiter & Walsh ABC Law Centers is a national birth injury law firm that has been helping children with birth injuries since its inception in 1997.

Our firm, which is based in Detroit, Michigan, has helped families across the United States in cases involving fetal monitoring errors, delayed delivery, C-section mistakes, HIE (hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy), premature birth, cerebral palsy, periventricular leukomalacia (PVL), and other birth injuries and complications. Our clients have hailed from all over the United States, in places including Michigan, Ohio, Texas, Wisconsin, Washington D.C., Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and other states. The Reiter & Walsh, P.C. birth trauma team has also handled FTCA (Federal Tort Claims Act) cases involving military medical malpractice and federally funded clinics.

To begin your free birth trauma case review, simply contact us in any of the following ways:

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Video: Detroit, Michigan Birth Injury Attorneys Discuss Medical Malpractice and Fetal Monitoring Errors

In this video, Jesse and Rebecca discuss birth injuries and how improper fetal monitoring and delayed C-section delivery are frequently the cause of birth injuries such as cerebral palsy.birth injury lawyers & improper fetal monitoring


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