Birth Injuries

Birth injuries often stem from physical harm or illness during delivery and can leave babies mentally handicapped or physically disabled for months, years, or even their entire lives. Treatments can manage long-term health effects of birth injuries and improve quality of life. Doctors and medical personnel have a duty to prevent these injuries — and if they don’t, they may be found medically negligent.

What Are Birth Injuries?

Birth injuries are any type of harm that a baby suffers during, shortly before, or shortly after birth.

According to the medical textbook Merck Manual, 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.

Notable birth injuries include: 

  • Cerebral palsy
  • Erb’s palsy
  • Brain damage
  • Infant hematoma
  • Intrauterine fetal demise
  • Kernicterus
  • Newborn jaundice
  • Spinal cord injuries
  • Vacuum extraction complications

If your child has suffered a birth injury, it’s crucial to seek medical help from an experienced doctor who can recommend treatments to manage the injury and its symptoms.

However, some injuries have no cure — meaning your child may have to live with a physical or mental impairment for the rest of their life.

Some families have traced their child’s birth injury back to medical errors made by obstetricians (doctors who deliver babies) and other medical personnel helping with the delivery. These doctors had a responsibility to keep children safe from birth injuries but failed.

If you believe your child suffered a birth injury due to medical malpractice, consider legal action to seek financial compensation to help cover your child’s medical expenses.

Birth Defects vs Birth Injuries

The most notable difference between birth injuries and birth defects is how they develop.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), birth defects typically develop within the first three months of pregnancy but can occur at any stage.

Factors such as drug use and family medical history may increase the risk of birth defects, but the CDC states that the causes are still unknown in most cases.

Birth injuries typically happen around the time of birth, such as during labor or delivery. If a baby suffers physical trauma during delivery — for example, if a medical error injures their head, neck, or arms — they could be born with a birth injury.

A fetus can also contract an illness while in the womb, and if doctors fail to diagnose or properly treat it, it may also lead to a birth injury.

Birth Injury Statistics

According to USA Today, the United States is the most dangerous country among developed nations in which to give birth — introducing a subsequent risk of birth injury. Learn more about this widespread issue with the birth injury statistics below.

Here are some notable 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 low-income or rural communities with limited access to medical care may have a higher risk of birth injury.

Types of Birth Injuries

Birth injuries range in severity. Serious injuries can leave a baby mentally or physically handicapped, while mild injuries may be managed with treatment or heal completely over time.

If you suspect your child has suffered a birth injury but are unsure, learn about each type and consult your doctor to get more information.

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

The severity of a baby’s brain damage varies among 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

A baby can develop cerebral palsy if they suffer a brain injury during delivery, limiting their muscle control.

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

The following injuries can damage a baby’s brain and cause cerebral palsy: 

  • Bleeding in the brain
  • Fever and infection
  • Heart attack or stroke
  • Lack of oxygen to the brain
  • Medical negligence

Doctors have a duty to keep babies safe before, during, and after delivery. If they do not, a child may suffer from a permanent disability as cerebral palsy has no cure.

Without a cure, the symptoms of cerebral palsy will affect the baby for the rest of their life and may worsen over time without proper treatment.

Erb’s Palsy

Damage to a baby’s nerves during birth may lead to Erb’s palsy, which can paralyze a child’s hand, arm, or shoulder, or leave them without feeling in the affected limbs.

Common causes of Erb’s palsy include:

  • 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

1-5 of every 2,000 children will suffer a birth injury that leads to Erb’s palsy, according to the American Association of Neuromuscular & Electrodiagnostic Medicine.

Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami notes that children with Erb’s palsy can often make a full recovery without treatment. Occasionally, children may need therapy or surgery to completely recover.

Some may never completely recover from the injury. For example, NFL football player Adrian Clayborn still can’t fully extend his right arm after being born with Erb’s palsy. In Adrian’s case, therapy helped him overcome his condition so he could play professional football.

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)

According to the University of California, San Francisco Benioff Children’s Hospital, the extent of the injury determines how HIE will affect a child.

Some babies may suffer from seizures, hearing and vision problems, and problems feeding. Others may not experience any long-term health problems.

Infant Hematoma

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

The main risk factors for infant hematomas are long or difficult labor and the use of vacuum extractors or forceps, according to the University of Chicago.

Infant hematomas can be treated with surgery if caught early on. Some may even clear up on their own.

Without proper diagnosis and prompt treatment, a severe infant hematoma can cause permanent brain damage.

Intrauterine Fetal Demise

Sometimes, a fetus dies before it is born. This is known as intrauterine fetal demise, a tragedy more commonly known as a stillbirth.

Common risk factors of intrauterine fetal demise include:

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

Intrauterine fetal demise occurs in 1 out of every 100 pregnancies each year in the United States, according to the March of Dimes.

Newborn Jaundice

Shortly after birth, a baby’s skin may appear yellow in color. This is known as newborn jaundice. Newborn jaundice 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, however, some babies may need treatment through blue light therapy if there is too much pigment. Light therapy allows the body to process bilirubin more easily.

In rare cases, 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 built up in their body and begun to collect in their brain.

Babies with kernicterus often appear extremely jaundiced and lethargic. They may also have trouble eating and make loud, high-pitched cries.

Without treatment, kernicterus can lead to seizures, hearing loss, and irreversible 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.

According to neonatologists (newborn care doctors) at NYU Winthrop Hospital, newborn spinal cord injuries usually occur if a medical professional 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.

The Mayo Clinic notes that damage to the spine cannot be repaired. That being said, medical treatments such as therapy and medication can help manage the condition and prevent it from worsening over time.

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.

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, it is safer to deliver a baby without help from a vacuum extractor, as using one can cause bleeding around or under the baby’s scalp.

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

Notable vacuum extraction injuries include: 

  • Bleeding inside the brain
  • Shoulder damage
  • Skull fractures

Doctors will 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

In addition to the injuries listed above, there are numerous other types of birth injuries that may cause harm to a child.

Other notable birth injuries include: 

  • C-Section injuries
  • Epidural birth injuries
  • Fetal lacerations
  • Folic acid deficiency anemia
  • Forceps delivery injury
  • Infant Bell’s palsy
  • Infant bleeding of the brain
  • Infant broken bones
  • Infant cystic fibrosis
  • Infant shoulder dystocia
  • Infant spina bifida
  • Klumpke’s palsy
  • Neonatal stroke
  • Placental birth injuries

Causes of Birth Injuries

Birth injuries can be caused by medical problems with the mother or fetus — or other factors such as medical malpractice.

Notable causes of birth injuries include: 

  • Fetal health factors: If a fetus is born feet-first, loses oxygen or blood flow during delivery, or develops an infection, their risk of a birth injury increases.
  • Maternal (mother’s) health factors: Maternal obesity, diabetes, or abnormal pelvis shape 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 a baby to suffer a birth injury. All of these problems may be prevented if doctors follow proper procedures.

Even though there are many possible birth injury causes, some families never learn the exact reasons why their baby suffered a birth injury.

Some symptoms may not be noticeable until months or years after the baby is born — meaning those families may never find answers about what caused their child’s condition.

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 receive essential treatment and provide ways to help 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.

Whether a baby is diagnosed immediately after birth or a couple of years down the road, diagnostic tests may be able to help explain the cause of the birth injury.

Diagnostic Testing for Birth Injuries

To diagnose a birth injury, your doctors may perform a series of tests to examine what parts of the body are affected and why.

The following tests may be used to diagnose 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 — and assigns points to each. The point value is then added up. A high Apgar score means the baby is in good health.

Brain Imaging for Diagnosis of HIE

To diagnose hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy (HIE), doctors will use an MRI to check for brain damage. An electroencephalogram (a recording of the brain’s electrical activity) may also be used to look for seizures and abnormal brain function.

Umbilical Cord Blood Gas Analysis

The umbilical cord contains blood vessels that contain both oxygen-rich blood and waste products like carbon dioxide. By analyzing umbilical cord blood gas at the time of birth, it can show whether or not the baby suffered from HIE or other health problems during delivery.

After a diagnosis has been made, doctors can recommend the next steps to take, such as immediate treatment like surgery or ongoing therapies.

Birth Injury Prognosis

A birth injury prognosis is the expected progression that a birth injury will take. A doctor will provide this prognosis with their diagnosis.

Symptoms and seriousness of birth injuries can vary greatly, so a prognosis depends on the extent of the child’s 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.

Because a prognosis depends on the child’s specific birth injury, it is important for families to keep in regular contact with their doctor. This way, they can receive a more accurate prognosis depending on how their child responds to medical treatment.

A prognosis is not set in stone and may change over time.

Birth Injury Life Expectancy

Like a prognosis, average life expectancy depends on the type of birth injury and its severity, and it can improve or worsen as the baby ages. Some children can their initial life expectancies.

A good example is Steph Hammerman, a health coach with cerebral palsy. Doctors initially told her family she would never walk, read, write, or talk. Steph overcame her diagnosis and went on to learn to walk with crutches and earn a Master’s degree.

Families can improve their child’s life expectancy by making sure they receive high-quality medical treatment. Even if their birth injury cannot be cured, medical treatments can help manage symptoms and prevent them from worsening in some cases.

Birth Injury Treatment

Medical treatments can help a baby recover from or manage their birth injury and its related symptoms.

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

Notable birth injury treatments include:

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

Depending on the injury, your child may only need treatment for a certain period of time, or they may need daily care for the rest of their life.

Living With a Birth Injury

Though birth injuries can seem frightening at first, doctors and therapists can work with parents to help children lead full, active lives.

For example, physical therapists can teach family members of children with muscle impairment how to perform exercises at home to help reinforce skills learned in therapy.

Doctors can also recommend a nutrition plan for a child who has difficulty eating or swallowing. Adaptive equipment such as a wheelchair or speech aid can help children get involved with physical activities and communicate more effectively.

By developing a long-term plan, medical experts and parents can help children stay healthy and happy despite a severe birth injury.

How to Prevent Birth Injuries

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

To reduce the risk of birth injuries, mothers can: 

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

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

Birth Injury Frequently Asked Questions

A sudden birth injury diagnosis can be a huge shock to families. Here are some common questions — and answers — about birth injuries.

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 leave them permanently disabled.

What is an intellectual disability?

An intellectual disability is any type of impairment that affects a person’s ability to properly think, communicate, and care for themselves. Because birth injuries can affect a baby’s brain, they may have an intellectual disability later in life. According to the disability organization Special Olympics, 6.5 million people in the U.S. have an intellectual disability.

Visit our birth injury FAQ page to see more common questions and answers. Always consult with an experienced doctor before making any long-term health care decisions.

Birth Injuries Caused by Medical Negligence

Many parents wonder if their child’s birth injury could have been prevented and may blame themselves for the harm caused to their baby.

A birth injury due to medical negligence occurs when a doctor harms a patient through a preventable medical error.

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

Not all mistakes are medical negligence, but the issue is worth exploring to determine if doctors could have prevented the child’s injuries.

In the past, legal decisions forced medically negligent doctors to compensate their victims through a financial payout. Your family may also be able to receive compensation if a doctor caused your child’s injuries.

How to Take Action Against Preventable Birth Injuries

If you believe that your child’s birth injury could have been prevented with proper medical care, it is crucial to look into your legal options.

With legal help for birth injuries, you may be able to prove that medical negligence caused harm to your child — and receive financial compensation to help pay for their medical needs and improve their quality of life.

Your child deserves justice for their preventable birth injury. To learn more about how legal action can help your child, get a free legal case review today.

Author:Birth Injury Justice Center
Birth Injury Justice Center

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.

Last modified: November 18, 2019

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Birth injuries are instances of physical harm during childbirth directly caused by medical errors. There are many types of birth injuries, ranging from mild to severe. Birth injuries—may cause irreversible damage. Birth injuries are instances of physical harm during childbirth directly caused by medical errors.

Protect your child’s future after a birth injury.

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