The Fetal Circulatory System

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The fetal circulatory system includes three shunts to divert blood from undeveloped and partially functioning organs, as well as blood supply to and from the placenta.

Source: OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology

OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology

During prenatal development, the fetal circulatory system is integrated with the placenta via the umbilical cord so that the fetus receives both oxygen and nutrients from the placenta. However, after childbirth, the umbilical cord is severed, and the newborn’s circulatory system must be reconfigured. When the heart first forms in the embryo, it exists as two parallel tubes derived from mesoderm and lined with endothelium, which then fuse together. As the embryo develops into a fetus, the tube-shaped heart folds and further differentiates into the four chambers present in a mature heart. Unlike a mature cardiovascular system, however, the fetal cardiovascular system also includes circulatory shortcuts, or shunts. A shunt is an anatomical (or sometimes surgical) diversion that allows blood flow to bypass immature organs such as the lungs and liver until childbirth.

The placenta provides the fetus with necessary oxygen and nutrients via the umbilical vein. (Remember that veins carry blood toward the heart. In this case, the blood flowing to the fetal heart is oxygenated because it comes from the placenta. The respiratory system is immature and cannot yet oxygenate blood on its own.) From the umbilical vein, the oxygenated blood flows toward the inferior vena cava, all but bypassing the immature liver, via the ductus venosus shunt. The liver receives just a trickle of blood, which is all that it needs in its immature, semifunctional state. Blood flows from the inferior vena cava to the right atrium, mixing with fetal venous blood along the way.

Although the fetal liver is semifunctional, the fetal lungs are nonfunctional. The fetal circulation therefore bypasses the lungs by shifting some of the blood through the foramen ovale, a shunt that directly connects the right and left atria and avoids the pulmonary trunk altogether. Most of the rest of the blood is pumped to the right ventricle, and from there, into the pulmonary trunk, which splits into pulmonary arteries. However, a shunt within the pulmonary artery, the ductus arteriosus, diverts a portion of this blood into the aorta. This ensures that only a small volume of oxygenated blood passes through the immature pulmonary circuit, which has only minor metabolic requirements. Blood vessels of uninflated lungs have high resistance to flow, a condition that encourages blood to flow to the aorta, which presents much lower resistance. The oxygenated blood moves through the foramen ovale into the left atrium, where it mixes with the now deoxygenated blood returning from the pulmonary circuit. This blood then moves into the left ventricle, where it is pumped into the aorta. Some of this blood moves through the coronary arteries into the myocardium, and some moves through the carotid arteries to the brain.

The descending aorta carries partially oxygenated and partially deoxygenated blood into the lower regions of the body. It eventually passes into the umbilical arteries through branches of the internal iliac arteries. The deoxygenated blood collects waste as it circulates through the fetal body and returns to the umbilical cord. Thus, the two umbilical arteries carry blood low in oxygen and high in carbon dioxide and fetal wastes. This blood is filtered through the placenta, where wastes diffuse into the maternal circulation. Oxygen and nutrients from the mother diffuse into the placenta and from there into the fetal blood, and the process repeats.


Betts, J. G., Young, K. A., Wise, J. A., Johnson, E., Poe, B., Kruse, D. H., … DeSaix, P. (n.d.). Anatomy and Physiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: