Birth Injuries

Quick Answer

Birth injuries often stem from physical harm or untreated illnesses around the time of birth. Birth injury treatments may help manage long-term health effects and improve quality of life, however, some injuries leave babies with life-long mental or physical disabilities. Doctors have a duty to prevent birth injuries, and when they don’t, it may be considered medical negligence.

What Is a Birth Injury?

A birth injury describes any type of harm that a baby suffers during, before, or shortly after delivery.

Many babies suffer from minor injuries during the delivery process. Most of these injuries do not need to be treated and often heal by themselves. However, some injuries have no cure — meaning your child may have a disability for the rest of their life.

Types of birth injuries include:

  • Cerebral palsy
  • Erb’s palsy
  • Brain damage
  • Infant hematoma
  • Intrauterine fetal demise
  • Kernicterus
  • Newborn jaundice
  • Spinal cord injuries
  • Vacuum extraction complications
  • Hypoxic Ischemic Encephalopathy (HIE)

If your child has suffered a birth injury, seek medical help from a doctor, as many birth injuries can be managed with proper treatment.

If you believe your child suffered a birth injury due to medical malpractice, consider legal action. Financial aid may be available to help cover your child’s medical expenses.

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Birth Defects vs Birth Injuries

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 happen 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.

Types of Birth Injuries

There are both mild and serious birth injuries. A serious injury can leave a baby mentally or physically handicapped for life, while mild injuries may heal over time with treatment. Below, learn more about various types of birth injuries.

Brain Damage

Brain damage occurs when a baby suffers a serious head injury during delivery.

Brain damage in newborns can be caused by: 

  • An undiagnosed brain infection
  • Asphyxia (loss of oxygen)
  • Bleeding in the brain
  • Physical injuries from blunt force, vacuum extraction, or pulling on the head
  • Umbilical cord choking

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

Cerebral palsy is generally caused by a brain injury during delivery. The condition can limit a child’s muscle control, mental functions, and ability to speak, see, and hear.

Did you know

According to the CDC, 85%-90% of people with cerebral palsy developed the condition before or during birth due to brain damage.

The following can cause a brain injury and, in turn, 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, many treatments exist to help children manage symptoms and live as independently as possible.

Erb’s Palsy (Brachial Plexus Palsy)

Erb’s palsy, also called brachial plexus palsy, is a type of birth injury characterized by paralysis of a child’s hand, arm, or shoulder. It’s caused by nerve damage during birth.

Erb’s palsy nerve damage can occur due to:

  • A baby’s head, neck, or shoulders getting stuck in the delivery process
  • Doctors pulling on a baby’s neck or head during a difficult delivery
  • Pulling on the baby’s feet in a feet-first (breech) delivery

Children with Erb’s palsy often make a full recovery without treatment. However, some children need therapy or surgery to completely recover, and some never regain use of their affected limb.

Hypoxic Ischemic Encephalopathy (HIE)

HIE occurs when a baby’s brain suffers from a lack of oxygen and blood flow during birth.

Many factors can lead to HIE during childbirth, including:

  • Abnormally long labor
  • Fetus in the wrong position
  • Placental bleeding or abruption
  • Umbilical cord prolapse (loss of oxygen flow through the umbilical cord)

The extent of the injury determines how HIE will affect a child. Some babies suffer from seizures, hearing and vision issues, or problems feeding. Others may not experience any long-term health problems.

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Infant Cephalohematoma

When bleeding in the skull causes blood to pool around the brain, it is known as a cephalohematoma. Cephalohematomas put pressure on the brain and lead to seizures, swelling or depressions in the head, and brain damage.

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 hematomas can be treated with surgery if caught early on, and some may even clear up on their own. In severe cases, however, cephalohematomas can cause permanent brain damage without treatment.

Intrauterine Fetal Demise

Intrauterine fetal demise, or stillbirth, occurs when a fetus dies before birth. It occurs in 1 out of every 100 pregnancies each year in the United States, according to the March of Dimes.

Risk factors of intrauterine fetal demise include:

  • Being pregnant with twins, triplets, or other multiples
  • Genetic factors
  • Umbilical cord prolapse
  • Maternal obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure

Newborn Jaundice

Shortly after birth, a baby’s skin may appear yellow in color. This is known as newborn jaundice and occurs when the body has a buildup of bilirubin, a pigment created as 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 build up and cause permanent brain damage.

Kernicterus

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:

  • Severe jaundice
  • Fatigue
  • Trouble eating
  • Loud, high-pitched crying

Without treatment, kernicterus can lead to seizures, hearing loss, and brain damage. Families concerned about kernicterus or jaundice should take their baby to a doctor as soon as possible.

Spinal Cord Injuries

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.

Spinal cord injuries are separated into two types: 

  1. Incomplete spinal cord injury: Your baby may have some control or feeling below the injured area on the spine.
  2. Complete spinal cord injury: Your baby will not be able to move or feel the limbs below the injury.

According to Stanford Children’s Health, spinal cord injuries during delivery typically affect the neck. Spine damage cannot be repaired, but medical care can prevent it from getting worse.

Vacuum Extraction Complications

When a baby gets stuck in the birth canal during delivery, some doctors may use vacuum extractors to assist with the delivery.

The vacuum extractor attaches to the baby’s head using a soft cup. It generates a suction force, allowing the doctor to pull on the baby while the mother pushes during a contraction. The combined force can help pull the baby out of the birth canal.

In rare cases, vacuum extraction complications can lead to serious injuries.

Injuries caused by improper use of vacuum extractors include: 

  • Bleeding inside the brain
  • Shoulder damage
  • Skull fractures

Doctors will typically only consider using vacuum extractors if they believe it is the best option. Parents who feel uncomfortable with this should ask their doctor about other delivery assistance methods ahead of time.

Other Types of Birth Injuries

Birth Injuries Characterized by Brain Damage

  • Periventricular Leukomalacia (PVL): PVL is a condition in which ventricles in the brain don’t get enough blood, leading to brain damage. Premature babies are at a higher risk of PVL.
  • Intraventricular Hemorrhage (IVH): IVH involves bleeding in the brain shortly after birth. Mild IVHs will not have a long-term impact on a baby’s health, but severe cases can cause permanent brain damage.
  • Hydrocephalus: Hydrocephalus is a buildup of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) in the brain. It may cause epilepsy, mental disabilities, or other health problems.
  • Infant Skull Fractures: Newborns that suffer skull fractures are at risk of conditions like bleeding within the brain and, in turn, brain damage.

Birth Injuries Characterized by Nerve Damage

  • Klumpke’s Palsy: Klumpke’s palsy occurs when nerves in a baby’s shoulders are damaged, causing the hand and lower part of the arm to become weak or paralyzed.
  • Infant Shoulder Dystocia: Shoulder dystocia occurs when a baby’s shoulder gets caught on the mother’s pubic bone during delivery. If a doctor does not properly treat this condition, the nerves in the baby’s shoulder can be stretched or torn, causing Erb’s palsy or Klumpke’s palsy.
  • Horner’s Syndrome: Horner’s syndrome may develop when the nerves between the brain and the eye are damaged. Common symptoms of Horner’s syndrome include a small pupil and lack of eyelid control.

Birth Injuries Characterized by Infection

  • Maternal Infections: Infections in pregnant women can also harm unborn babies. When left untreated, diseases, such as chickenpox, can trigger inflammations in the fetus’ brain that lead to cerebral palsy or other complications.
  • Infant Chorioamnionitis: 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: When a woman is infected with Group B Strep (GBS), it can put their baby at risk of life-threatening health problems like sepsis, seizures, and meningitis.
  • Infant Meningitis: Meningitis is a life-threatening condition passed from a mother to an unborn child through a GBS infection. Infant meningitis may cause brain damage that leads to cerebral palsy or even death.

Birth Injuries Characterized by Medical Negligence

  • Wrongful Birth: When doctors fail to explain that a baby could be born with severe birth injuries, it’s considered a wrongful birth. This may cause the family to face emotional and financial hardships as they work to care for their disabled child.
  • C-Section Injuries: Sometimes doctors perform a c-section (cesarean section) to deliver a child when a vaginal birth may not be safe. In some cases, however, this can harm the child if the procedure causes skin cuts or breathing problems.

Other Health Risks Linked To Birth Injuries

  • Caput Succedaneum: Caput succedaneum occurs when a baby’s scalp swells after delivery. While the swelling usually goes away on its own, without treatment, it may cause newborn jaundice and other serious health problems.
  • Birth Trauma: Birth trauma is any type of physical harm that comes to a baby during the delivery process. It can include broken bones, internal bleeding, or lacerations (deep skin cuts).
  • Folic Acid Deficiency and Birth Defects: Women are highly encouraged to take folic acid while pregnant. Folic acid deficiencies have been linked to birth defects like spina bifida or anencephaly (where the skull and brain do not fully form).
  • Infant Subconjunctival Hemorrhage: 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.
  • Epidural Birth Injuries: An epidural is a form of anesthesia often given during labor. Though usually safe, the use of epidurals may cause a baby to have trouble breathing or develop other health problems.
  • Infant Cervical Dystonia: Cervical dystonia, part of a broader group of conditions called torticollis, causes the muscles in the head and neck to contract without warning. Newborns may develop cervical dystonia if they suffer from a brain injury or a stroke.
  • Infant Torticollis: Infant torticollis prevents newborns from properly moving their head and neck. Difficult births may lead to infant torticollis, but simple exercises can help babies recover from the condition.
  • Meconium Aspiration Syndrome (MAS): Most babies release meconium, a type of feces, shortly after they are born. However, if a baby discharges this waste while still in the womb and then inhales it, they may develop MAS, which can cause difficulty breathing, lung damage, or even death.

Causes of Birth Injuries

Birth injuries can be caused by medical problems with the mother or fetus — or other factors such as medical malpractice. In some cases, families never learn their child’s birth injury cause.

Common causes of birth injuries include:

  • Fetal health factors: If A fetus is born feet-first during vaginal delivery, experiences oxygen deprivation, loses blood flow, or develops an infection, their risk of a birth injury increases.
  • Maternal (mother’s) health factors: Maternal infection, obesity, diabetes, or abnormal shape of the mother’s pelvis can all make delivery harder and increase the risk of birth injury.
  • Medical malpractice: Forcefully using medical tools, improperly medicating the mother, or failing to diagnose a dangerous medical condition can all cause birth injuries. These problems may be prevented if doctors follow proper procedures.

Common Birth Injury Symptoms

Birth injury symptoms can change, improve, or worsen over time depending on the condition and diagnosis.

Physical symptoms of birth injuries can include: 

  • Blindness or deafness
  • Floppy or stiff muscles
  • Inability to move one part of the body
  • Numb feeling in the affected limb
  • Missing developmental milestones, such as sitting up

Intellectual symptoms of birth injuries can include:

  • Difficulty learning and understanding concepts
  • Communication issues
  • Poor organizational and sequencing skills
  • Short attention span

Other notable symptoms can include: 

  • Epilepsy and seizures
  • Excessive sleepiness
  • 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 they need to manage their condition.

Birth Injury Diagnosis

Some birth injuries can be diagnosed immediately after delivery, while others may not be diagnosed until the baby is a few months or years old. Parents and doctors may only suspect a birth injury once the child is missing major developmental milestones.

Regardless of the timeframe, birth injuries are commonly diagnosed using a series of tests to examine what parts of the body are affected and why.

Diagnostic Testing for Birth Injuries

  • 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 for Diagnosis of HIE: To diagnose HIE, doctors will use an MRI 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. By analyzing umbilical cord blood gas, doctors can learn if a baby suffered from HIE or other health problems during delivery.

After a diagnosis has been made, doctors can give a prognosis and recommend treatments.

Birth Injury Prognosis

A birth injury prognosis is the expected progression the injury will take. No matter your child’s prognosis, it is not set in stone and may change over time depending on their specific injuries.

For example, children born with newborn jaundice or Erb’s palsy often recover completely. On the other hand, cerebral palsy and spinal cord injuries cause permanent impairment and require lifelong medical treatment.

Birth Injury Life Expectancy

Average life expectancy depends on your child’s birth injury type and severity. Life expectancy can also change as your child ages, but you may be able to improve their life expectancy by making sure they receive high-quality medical treatment.

Birth Injury Treatment

Medical treatments and various types of therapy can help a baby recover from or manage their birth injury and its symptoms.

Notable birth injury treatments include:

  • Medications
  • Occupational therapy
  • Physical therapy
  • Speech therapy
  • Surgery

To determine what birth injury treatments will work best, speak with a pediatric specialist that can recommend proper treatments.

Living With a Birth Injury

Doctors and therapists can work with parents to help children affected by birth injuries lead full, active lives.

Did you know

Physical therapists can teach family members of children with muscle problems how to perform exercises at home to reinforce skills learned in therapy. Doctors can also recommend a nutrition plan for a child who has difficulty eating or swallowing.

Further, adaptive equipment like wheelchairs or speech aids can help children get involved with physical activities and communicate more effectively.

Preventing a Birth Injury

While there is no way to completely prevent birth injuries, some steps can be taken to lower the risks.

Expectant mothers can:

  • Get regular checkups for themselves and the unborn baby
  • Ask their doctors about possible risk factors they may have, such as genetic history
  • Manage existing health issues, such as diabetes
  • Try to stay physically healthy before the baby is born

Outside of these factors, a great way to reduce the risk of a birth injury is to work with an experienced medical team. Medical professionals can monitor mothers and fetuses for any birth injury risks and work to prevent them.

Birth Injury Statistics

  • Nationwide Children’s Hospital reports that a broken collarbone is the most common type of birth injury.
  • Rates of physical birth injuries are on the decline in the U.S., according to a 2019 report issued by doctors at New York University (NYU) Winthrop Hospital.
  • Babies born prematurely or with a high birth weight have a higher risk of birth injuries, according to Stanford Children’s Health.
  • Children born in rural communities with limited access to medical care may have a higher risk of birth injury.

Visit our birth injury statistics page to learn more facts and statistics about birth injuries.

Birth Injury Frequently Asked Questions

Read common questions and answers about birth injuries below. Always consult with an experienced doctor before making any long-term health care decisions.

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. In the United States, roughly 6.5 million people have an intellectual disability.

A birth injury that affects a baby’s brain may lead to an intellectual disability later in life.

Can my child recover from a birth injury?

This depends on the injury. While children may be able to recover from mild birth injuries, serious brain and spinal cord damage may cause permanent disabilities.

Was my child’s birth injury preventable?

While many birth injuries are out of the control of parents or doctors, some injuries are preventable and may be the fault of the medical professionals caring for the mother and baby. In other words, preventable birth injuries may be the result of medical negligence.

Common examples of medical negligence include:

  • Failing to catch a serious illness in the mother or fetus
  • Providing the wrong medication during pregnancy
  • Using too much force to deliver a child
  • Improper use of delivery assistance tools
  • Failing to promptly address complications during or shortly after delivery

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 the health care provider(s) at fault accountable. A lawsuit allows you to pursue compensation to cover your child’s costs of care.

Free Legal Case Review

Do you suspect your child’s birth injury was caused by medical negligence?

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How To Take Action Against Preventable Birth Injuries

Some families have traced their child’s birth injury back to medical errors made by obstetricians and other medical personnel helping with the delivery. These professionals had a duty to keep the child safe from birth trauma but failed.

If you believe that your child’s birth injury could have been prevented with proper medical care and want to explore your legal options, a birth injury lawyer can help. Top law firms experienced in birth injury cases are located across the country and are standing by to help you.

If you would like to talk to an attorney about pursuing birth injury compensation, contact our team of Patient Advocates today for a free case review.

Birth Injury Support Team

The Birth Injury Justice Center was founded in 2003 by a team of legal professionals to educate and empower victims and families affected by birth injuries. Our team is devoted to providing you with the best resources and legal information for all types of birth injuries.

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