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What is Meconium Aspiration Syndrome?

By D. Jeffress
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Meconium aspiration syndrome is a respiratory disorder that affects about five percent of newborn babies worldwide. It occurs when an infant inhales fecal matter known as meconium before, during, or immediately after birth. A number of factors can contribute to the disorder, including diabetes and high blood pressure in the mother, a long, difficult delivery, or various types of fetal distress. Meconium aspiration syndrome can lead to skin discoloration, difficulty breathing, a slowed heart rate, and possibly death if it is not recognized and treated right away. When doctors are able to identify and treat symptoms, however, most infants are able to recover in two to four days with no long-term health problems.

Unborn babies receive nourishment from amniotic fluid, the protein-rich liquid produced in the womb that is swallowed and inhaled. Ingested amniotic fluid is processed and expelled as meconium, watery stools that are odorless and usually harmless to the mother and the baby. Problems arise only if meconium is mixed in with healthy amniotic fluid and inhaled again. Excessive amounts of meconium in the lungs can block air passages, lower oxygen levels in the blood, and cause severe inflammation and irritation.

An infant who suffers from meconium aspiration syndrome usually exhibits several symptoms, including rapid, shallow breathing, and green or blue tinted skin. Many babies are limp or have difficulty moving because of their labored breathing. Other indicators of excessive meconium levels include the presence of discolored or thick amniotic fluid at birth. Doctors can check for signs of meconium aspiration syndrome in an unborn baby by using a fetal monitor, a device which that tracks changes in heart rate. After birth, an obstetrician can diagnose the disorder by listening to the newborn's lungs with a stethoscope, checking for unusual noises or other signs of airway obstruction. A physician may also conduct a blood analysis to detect low oxygen levels or x-ray the infant's chest to look for lung obstructions.

A physician or nurse usually tries to relieve symptoms by suctioning excessive meconium out of an afflicted infant's lungs using an endotracheal tube. Some babies need breathing machines to help regulate their respiratory systems or antibiotics to ward off infections from fecal matter. An infant who is not treated immediately is at risk of contracting pneumonia or suffering from permanent brain damage. The prognosis for babies who are treated for meconium aspiration syndrome, however, is generally very good; the majority of individuals experience no lasting lung problems or other negative health effects.

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Discussion Comments

By rugbygirl — On Sep 01, 2011

@SailorJerry - Congratulations on your new baby! Don't worry - soon it will all be over and you'll be at home with your healthy baby and all the worrying will be in the past.

I had a meconium birth with my little girl. You'll definitely know. After a woman's water breaks, she can go on dripping. That's why in the hospital, they have all those OB pads - they look like puppy pads - to put under everything the mom sits, stands, or walks on. Amniotic fluid is clear. Meconium is green or black in color.

They don't necessarily do a C-section, especially if there are no other signs of fetal distress, although they monitor you a little more closely after passing meconium. I didn't have a C-section and I was still able to move around after the mec, although at that point I started Pitocin and had to be on the fetal monitor.

They told me that the big danger with meconium is that when the baby is first born, it might be on his face and he might breath it in when he hits the air. So the unfortunate thing is that they have to cut the cord right away and whisk baby across the room for suctioning instead of mom getting to hold her right away. That was the most disappointing thing for me. But of course, I was glad that baby was healthy. She turned out not to have inhaled any mec, although the suctioning swelled her up and she awfully stuffy for a while.

By SailorJerry — On Aug 31, 2011

My wife and I are expecting our first child and I'm being the typical new dad, way over-researching everything!

I know that passing meconium during labor is a sign of fetal distress. What should we expect if that happens - do they always do a C-section? And can anyone give me a better idea what it would look like? You experienced parents out there, I'm sure you remember what it's like the first time around; you're afraid you won't recognize the signs of labor, mom won't be able to breastfeed, you won't know if something's wrong, all that panicky stuff!

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