What Is a Birth Injury?
A birth injury describes any type of harm to a baby before, during, or shortly after delivery.
Many babies suffer from minor injuries during the delivery process. Most of these injuries heal by themselves without treatment. In other cases, prompt and proper treatment can help manage birth injuries — so it’s important to seek medical help from a doctor as soon as you suspect an injury.
Some serious birth injuries have no cure, and your child may have a disability for the rest of their life.
If you believe your child suffered a birth injury due to medical malpractice, consider taking legal action — you may be eligible for financial compensation to pay for your child’s treatment.
Common Types of Birth Injuries
There are many different types of birth injuries that can vary in severity, affect specific areas of the body, and cause lifelong disability and impairments. A severe injury at birth can leave an individual mentally or physically handicapped for life, while mild injuries may heal over time with or without treatment.
Learn more about the most common types of birth injuries
Brain damage occurs when a child suffers a serious head injury during delivery. Damage to the brain can lead to neurological and physical impairments.
Brain damage in newborns can be caused by:
- Asphyxia (loss of oxygen)
- Bleeding in the brain
- Physical injuries from blunt force, vacuum extraction, or pulling on the head
- Umbilical cord choking
- Undiagnosed brain infection
Brain damage varies with each case and is determined by the extent of the injury and the part of the brain that is affected. Depending on these factors, your baby may either make a full recovery or live with a long-term disability.
Cerebral palsy is generally caused by a brain injury during childbirth. Depending on the severity of the condition, cerebral palsy greatly affects an individual’s muscle control and can often cause speech and developmental delays.
85% - 90%
of people with cerebral palsy developed the condition before or during birth due to brain damage.
According to the CDC
The following can cause brain injuries that lead to cerebral palsy:
- Bleeding in the brain
- Fever and infection
- Heart attack or stroke
- Lack of oxygen to the brain
- Medical negligence
Cerebral palsy has no cure. However, there are many treatments available to help manage symptoms to help children and adults live as independently as possible.
Erb’s palsy (brachial plexus palsy) is a type of birth injury characterized by paralysis of a child’s hand, arm, or shoulder. It is caused by damage to the brachial plexus nerves during the childbirth process.
babies are born with Erb’s Palsy
According to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons (AAOS)
Erb’s palsy nerve damage can occur due to:
- Excessively pulling on a child’s neck or head during a difficult delivery
- Pulling on the baby’s feet in a feet-first (breech) delivery
- The child’s head, neck, or shoulders getting stuck under the pelvic bone and/or in the birth canal during delivery
Children with Erb’s palsy often make a full recovery without treatment. However, some children need surgery or physical and occupational therapies to make a full recovery. In severe cases, some children may never regain use of the affected limb.
Hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy (HIE) occurs when a child suffers from a lack of oxygen (hypoxia) and blood flow (ischemia) during birth.
Factors that can lead to a child developing HIE include:
- Abnormally long labor
- Fetus in the wrong position
- Placental bleeding or abruption
- Umbilical cord prolapse (loss of oxygen flow through the umbilical cord)
The severity of the injury will determine how HIE will affect a child. Some babies suffer from seizures, feeding issues, and hearing and/or vision issues. Other children may not experience any long-term health problems.
Intrauterine fetal demise (or stillbirth) occurs when a fetus dies before birth. According to the March of Dimes, intrauterine fetal demise occurs in 1 out of every 100 pregnancies each year in the United States.
Risk factors of intrauterine fetal demise include:
- Being pregnant with twins, triplets, or other multiples
- Genetic factors
- Maternal obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure
- Umbilical cord prolapse
Newborn jaundice occurs when a child’s skin appears yellow in color once they are born. This is caused by a high content of bilirubin, a pigment created when the body replaces blood cells.
In most cases, newborn jaundice will clear up within two weeks. In rare cases, however, large amounts of bilirubin can continue to build up and cause permanent brain damage.
Untreated newborn jaundice can lead to kernicterus. When a baby suffers from kernicterus, bilirubin has begun to collect in their brain.
Symptoms of kernicterus include:
- Loud, high-pitched crying
- Severe jaundice
- Trouble eating
Untreated kernicterus can lead to numerous health issues including seizures, hearing loss, and brain damage.
A newborn cephalohematoma occurs when bleeding in the skull causes blood to pool around the tissue surrounding the brain. Cephalohematomas put pressure on the brain and can lead to seizures, brain damage, and swelling and/or depressions in the head.
According to the University of Chicago, the main risk factors for newborn cephalohematomas are long or difficult labor and the use of vacuum extractors or forceps.
Infant cephalohematomas can be treated with surgery if caught in its early stages. Some cases often clear up on their own, but in untreated and more severe cases, cephalohematomas can cause permanent brain damage.
The spine sends signals to the brain that allow it to control the body’s limbs. A spinal cord injury can interrupt these signals and reduce your child’s sense of touch and ability to move. Newborn spinal cord injuries usually occur if a doctor pulls on a baby’s spine too hard during delivery.
According to Stanford Children’s Health, spinal cord injuries during delivery typically affect the neck.
Spine damage cannot be repaired, but treatment can prevent the damage from worsening.
Some doctors may use vacuum extractors to assist in pulling out a child that is stuck in the birth canal during delivery.
The vacuum extractor attaches to the baby’s head using a soft cup and generates a suction force which allows the doctor to pull on the baby while the mother pushes during a contraction.
In rare cases, vacuum extraction complications can lead to serious injuries.
Vacuum extraction complications can cause:
- Bleeding inside the brain
- Shoulder damage
- Skull fractures
Doctors will typically only consider using vacuum extractors if they believe it is the safest option. If your child sustained any of these types of injuries, take legal action today to get the financial compensation you deserve.
If you believe that your child’s injury was a result of negligent care, contact a birth injury attorney to learn more about your legal options.
Other Types of Birth Injuries
Birth Injuries Characterized by Brain Damage
- Periventricular Leukomalacia (PVL): A condition in which ventricles in the brain do not get enough blood, leading to brain damage.
- Intraventricular Hemorrhage (IVH): Characterized by bleeding in the brain shortly after birth. Severe cases can cause permanent brain damage.
- Hydrocephalus: Caused by a buildup of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain. It may cause epilepsy, mental disabilities, or other health problems.
- Infant Skull Fractures: Increase the risk of conditions such as bleeding in the brain, which can lead to brain damage.
Birth Injuries Characterized by Nerve Damage
- Klumpke’s Palsy: Occurs from brachial plexus nerve damage causing the hand and lower part of the arm to become weak or paralyzed.
- Infant Shoulder Dystocia: Occurs when a baby’s shoulder gets caught on the mother’s pubic bone during delivery.
- Horner Syndrome: Develops when the nerves between the brain and the eye are damaged, causing small pupils and lack of eyelid control.
Birth Injuries Characterized by Infection
- Maternal Infections: Untreated maternal infections can cause diseases that can trigger inflammations in fetus’ brains. This can lead to cerebral palsy or other complications.
- Infant Chorioamnionitis: Occurs when the placenta and umbilical cord get infected with bacteria. The infection can then spread to the fetus and cause a premature birth and brain damage.
- Group B Strep Infection: Can increase the child’s risk of life-threatening health problems like sepsis, seizures, and meningitis.
- Infant Meningitis: Life-threatening condition passed from the mother to the unborn child through a group B strep infection that may cause brain damage leading to cerebral palsy or death.
Birth Injuries Characterized by Medical Negligence
- Wrongful Birth: Occurs when a doctor fails to inform the mother of known pregnancy risks and complications that result in birth injuries.
- C-Section Injuries: Occurs when a doctor performs an unsafe C-section leading to complications that may affect both the mother and baby.
Other Health Risks Linked To Birth Injuries
- Caput Succedaneum: Occurs when a baby’s scalp swells after delivery. Most cases resolve without treatment, but untreated caput succedaneum can lead to newborn jaundice.
- Birth Trauma: Any type of physical harm to a baby during the delivery process, including broken bones, internal bleeding, or lacerations.
- Epidural Injuries: Occurs when the use of the anesthesia causes complications for the mother and child, such as breathing troubles and other health conditions.
- Folic Acid Deficiency: A condition linked to birth defects such spina bifida or anencephaly. This condition can be prevented by taking folic acid supplements.
- Infant Cervical Dystonia: Causes the muscles in the head and neck to involuntarily contract. Newborns may develop cervical dystonia if they suffer from a brain injury or a stroke.
- Infant Subconjunctival Hemorrhage: Occurs when a blood vessel in the eye bursts, causing a red spot to appear in the eye. This condition is very common in infants and will usually clear up without medical treatment.
- Infant Torticollis: Generally caused by difficult childbirth and prevents newborns from properly moving their head and neck.
- Meconium Aspiration Syndrome (MAS): Occurs when a fetus inhales discharged waste while still in the womb, leading to difficulty breathing, lung damage, or even death.
Birth Defects vs Birth Injuries
Birth defects and birth injuries are not the same. The most notable difference between birth injuries and birth defects is how they develop.
- Birth defects Typically form while a baby is still in the womb. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), birth defects typically develop within the first three months of pregnancy. Factors like drug use, family medical history, and untreated infections may increase the risk of birth defects.
- Birth injuries Generally develop as a baby is being born. For example, if a baby suffers physical trauma to their head or a brain bleed due to the use of vacuum extractors, they may be born with a birth injury.
Birth injuries can be caused by several different factors such as fetal health issues, maternal health issues, or external conditions such as medical malpractice or medical negligence. Since it can be very difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of a birth injury, some families never learn what specifically caused their child’s injury.
Common Fetal Health Risk Factors
- Develops an infection
- Experiences oxygen deprivation (hypoxia) and/or blood flow loss (ischemia)
- Fetus is born feet-first during a vaginal delivery
Common Maternal Health Risk Factors
- Abnormal shape of the mother’s pelvis
- Maternal infection
One cause of birth injuries is medical negligence by health care professionals during delivery. There are several ways doctors can be negligent with their care during childbirth, which can result in injury to the baby.
Medical professionals are trained to understand the birthing process and how to monitor any risks to the mother or child. However, some medical staff do not uphold the high standard of care expected from them.
Forcefully using forceps or vacuum extractors, improperly medicating the mother, or failing to diagnose serious medical conditions in the mother or baby can all lead to the child developing a birth injury. All of these factors can be prevented if doctors follow proper procedures to ensure the safety of the mother and baby during the birthing process.
Birth Injury Symptoms
Depending on your child’s condition and diagnosis, birth injury symptoms may change, improve, or worsen over time.Physical symptoms
- Blindness or deafness
- Failing to meet developmental milestones, such as sitting up
- Floppy or stiff muscles
- Inability to move one part of the body
- Numb feeling in the affected limb
- Difficulty learning and understanding concepts
- Issues with communicating effectively
- Poor organizational and sequencing skills
- Short attention span
- Excessive sleepiness
- Seizure episodes
- Sharp, loud crying
If you believe your child is showing symptoms of a birth injury, consult your doctor as soon as possible. An early diagnosis can help your child get the treatments needed to manage their condition.
Birth Injury Diagnosis
Although some birth injuries can be diagnosed immediately after delivery, most birth injuries are not diagnosed until months or years after a child is born. Parents and doctors may only suspect a birth injury once the child fails to meet major developmental milestones.
Regardless of when the injury is discovered, birth injuries are commonly diagnosed using a series of tests to examine which parts of the body are affected.
Diagnostic testing for birth injuries include:
- Apgar Score: When a baby is born, doctors will perform an Apgar test to measure the baby’s vital signs. The test looks at five factors: heart rate, muscle tone, reflexes, breath, and skin tone. A higher Apgar score means the baby is in good health.
- Brain Imaging: To diagnose certain brain injuries such as HIE or cerebral palsy, doctors will use an MRI, CT scan, or other imaging tests to check for brain damage.
- Umbilical Cord Blood Gas Analysis: The umbilical cord contains blood vessels filled with oxygen-rich blood and waste products like carbon dioxide. Doctors can discover whether or not the baby suffered from HIE or other health problems during delivery by analyzing the umbilical cord blood gas.
After a diagnosis has been made, doctors are able to give a prognosis and establish effective treatments for your child’s birth injury.
Birth Injury Prognosis
A birth injury prognosis is the expected outcome of the injury. No matter what your child’s prognosis is, it is important to note that it may change over time depending on the specific injury.
For example, children born with newborn jaundice or Erb’s palsy often recover from their condition completely. However, cerebral palsy and spinal cord injuries cause permanent impairment and require lifelong medical treatment.
The average life expectancy while living with a birth injury can depend on your child’s injury type and severity. Birth injury life expectancy can change as your child ages, but you may be able to improve their overall quality of life by making sure they receive proper medical treatment.
Medical treatments and various types of therapy can help children recover from birth trauma as well as manage their birth injury symptoms.
Common forms of birth injury treatment include:
The type of birth injury treatment your child receives can vary based on their condition. It is important to consult with your child’s health care provider to determine which treatments will benefit your child.
Living With a Birth Injury
Doctors and therapists can work with parents to help children affected by birth injuries lead fulfilling and active lives. For example, doctors can recommend a nutrition plan for a child who has difficulty eating or swallowing. Physical therapists can teach family members of children with muscle problems how to perform exercises at home to reinforce skills learned in therapy.
Adaptive equipment like wheelchairs or speech aids can help children get involved with physical activities and communicate more effectively.
Birth Injury Prevention
While there is no way to completely prevent birth injuries, some steps can be taken to lower the risks.
Expectant mothers can prevent birth injuries by:
- Asking their doctors about possible risk factors they may have, such as genetic factors
- Getting regular checkups for themselves as well as the unborn baby
- Managing existing health issues, such as diabetes
- Staying active to keep healthy before and during pregnancy
- Taking folic acid supplements to prevent folic acid deficiency
Another great way to reduce the risk of a birth injury is to work with an experienced medical team. Medical professionals can monitor the mother and fetus for any birth injury risks — and work to prevent them.
Take Legal Action Against Birth Injuries
If your child suffers from a birth injury stemming from negligence or malpractice, you may be entitled to financial compensation to help pay for their treatment costs and other expenses. The health care providers that caused your child’s birth injury should be held accountable.
Get a free case review today to learn more about taking legal action and pursuing justice for your child’s preventable birth injury.
Frequently Asked Questions About Birth Injuries
How common are birth injuries?
According to the National Vital Statistics Report, around 1.9 per 1,000 children suffer from a birth injury. The birth trauma rate fell from 2.6 per 1,000 live births in 2004 to 1.9 per 1,000 live births in 2012.
What is an intellectual disability?
An intellectual disability is a condition that affects a person’s ability to think, speak, and/or care for themselves. A birth injury that affects a child’s brain function may lead to an intellectual disability later in life.
According to the CDC, roughly 6.5 million people have an intellectual disability in the United States.
Can my child fully recover from a birth injury?
Whether or not your child makes a full recovery can depend on the type and severity of their birth injury. Some children may be able to fully recover from more mild cases of injuries, whereas more severe cases of brain or spinal cord damage may cause permanent disabilities.
What is the cost to care for a child with a birth injury?
Many families may experience financial burdens when taking care of their disabled child as treatment can be costly. Medication, therapy, rehabilitation, assistive devices, education, and more can become unexpected expenses.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average lifetime cost for an individual with cerebral palsy is estimated at $921,000.
Is there financial assistance and support available for my family?
Families of children with birth injuries often need financial help to pay for their child’s health care. If a family does not have access to high quality of care and proper medical services, their child is at a higher risk of developing complications due to their condition.
Your family may qualify for subsidized healthcare through Medicaid. Your child may also be eligible for assistance under the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program. Learn more about finding resources to pay for your child’s treatment through our financial support page.
Was my child’s birth injury preventable?
Many birth injuries are out of the control of parents or doctors, however, some injuries are preventable and may be the fault of the medical professionals caring for the mother and baby. Preventable birth injuries may be the result of medical negligence.
If you suspect your child’s birth injury was caused by medical negligence, you may be able to file a birth injury lawsuit to hold accountable the health care professionals that cared for you and your child.
If you have any additional questions about birth injuries and pursuing legal action, contact our team today to learn more.