Fetal Monitoring Undergoes Update

07.14.09 Experts adjust guidelines for electronic tracking of baby while you're in labor.

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New guidelines on fetal monitoring were recently issued in an effort to bring more consistency to how doctors interpret the results and make decisions about whether to intervene during labor, The New York Times reports. The findings were published in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology.

Electronic fetal monitoring was introduced in the 1970s, and it's used in labor in more than 85 percent of the 4 million infants born alive in the U.S. per year, the Times reports. Without much knowledge if the benefits outweighed the risks, fetal monitoring quickly became standard practice. Some health experts say monitoring has fueled the increase in Cesarean section deliveries and the use of foreceps in vaginal births. On the flip side, monitoring has not been found to lower the risk of cerebral palsy or fetal death from inadequate oxygen to the baby's brain (as it was first intended to do).

The new guidelines from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) divide monitor readings into three categories (previously it was two): the first category is considered normal; the second is called "indeterminate"; and the third is abnormal and requires prompt evaluation. Among the possible actions for an abnormal reading are giving oxygen to the pregnant woman, changing her position or stopping any labor-stimulating drugs. If the monitoring results don't return to normal, the baby should be delivered. The Times report also says that more refinements to the guidelines are expected to be released in 2010.

Over the past century, childbirth has become significantly safer for mothers and babies in the U.S. But remember, having the delivery experience you want starts with knowledge about your options, including what is fetal distress. (If you're in the middle of labor and a health professional throws this term at you, you're going to wish you had read up on it beforehand in order to make an informed decision.) If you're low risk, maybe it's time to explore getting back to nature.

The best plan is to be flexible when it comes to D-Day. Check out our Guide to Giving Birth for everything you should know to prepare for the big day!

Maria Vega is Fit Pregnancy magazine's copy editor.