Birth Trauma

Quick Answer

Birth trauma describes physical harm that takes place during birth, plus its lasting emotional effects. Birth trauma can occur during either vaginal or cesarean delivery, potentially leaving the baby with long-term or permanent disabilities. In some cases, birth trauma is the result of medical negligence or wrongdoing. Learn more about birth trauma and what steps to take if your baby was affected.

What Is Birth Trauma?

Birth trauma occurs when a baby’s organs or tissues are damaged during a difficult delivery. A traumatic birth can lead to lasting medical problems in the infant, such as brachial plexus injuries, brain damage, and more.

When birth trauma is caused by negligence or medical malpractice, parents have the right to pursue legal compensation for their children’s injuries. Whether the obstetrician failed to medically intervene, used excessive force, or was otherwise responsible for the infant’s injuries, parents can file a medical malpractice claim.

Compensation from a lawsuit can help parents pay for their child’s health care expenses, as well as any mental health treatment they may need for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), postpartum or postnatal depression, or anxiety disorders caused by psychological trauma from the birth experience.

Free Legal Case Review

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

Get a Free Case Review

Causes of Birth Trauma

Each year, approximately 3.8 million babies are born in the United States. Sadly, more than 21,000 of the babies born will not survive. Others will be victims of birth trauma.

While some trauma may occur naturally, many traumatic childbirth experiences are preventable or caused by an obstetrician’s failure to recognize warning signs or use medical interventions when necessary.

Causes of traumatic childbirth include:

  • Abnormal birth position
  • Acceleration and stimulation of the birth
  • Breech and obstetric turn
  • Cephalopelvic disproportion (child’s head is too big to fit through the mother’s pelvis during a natural delivery)
  • Fast deliveries or delayed/prolonged deliveries
  • Improper delivery procedures, such as forceful use of vacuum extractors or forceps

Regardless of whether the cause of the birth trauma was preventable, medical professionals in obstetrics or pediatrics have a duty to intervene to keep the mother and baby as safe as possible.

If an obstetrician or other health care provider fails to take immediate, necessary action during and after birth — for example, waiting too long to perform an emergency cesarean section (C-section) — a traumatic birth injury can occur and lead to severe consequences.

Birth Trauma Risk Factors

Some fetal or women’s health issues put babies at a higher risk for a traumatic birth. Medical professionals should be especially alert before and during the birth process to identify and treat these risk factors.

Risk factors for a traumatic or difficult birth include:

  • Abnormal amniotic fluid volume
  • Abnormal biophysical profile (BPP)
  • Abnormal fetal heart rate
  • Cramping or vaginal bleeding
  • Decreased fetal movement
  • Gestational diabetes
  • Insufficient or excessive weight gain

Birth Trauma Effects on Baby

Birth injuries involving the head, neck, and shoulders are the most common since most babies exit the womb head first. Birth traumas can have lasting effects on the baby. Some of the most common types of birth trauma are detailed below.

Bell’s Palsy

When a baby’s facial nerves are damaged during labor or delivery, sometimes caused by improper use of forceps, Bell’s palsy can occur.

The condition may be noticeable when the baby cries, as the injured nerve prevents movement of their face or the closing of the eye on the side where the trauma occurred. Bell’s palsy often clears on its own, but surgery may be required to restore nerve function, and some babies may never fully recover.

Bruising and Broken Bones

As the baby is pushed out through the birth canal, the pressure and physical stress of exiting the womb can cause bruising and, in some cases, broken bones.

Fractures generally affect the collarbone during breech deliveries or when the baby’s shoulder gets stuck above the mother’s pubic bone during vaginal delivery (shoulder dystocia).

A doctor’s use of forceps or vacuum extractors can also cause lacerations, bruising, or broken bones, primarily if an improper amount of force is used. Proactive monitoring of the baby’s size, position, and mother’s health before labor can often prevent this type of birth trauma.

Free Legal Case Review

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

Get a Free Case Review

Caput Succedaneum

Caput succedaneum, or swelling of the scalp, is typically caused by pressure during delivery. This pressure can occur after a difficult birth experience or when the amniotic sac breaks, leaving the head unprotected during the birthing process. Vacuum extraction after long delivery periods has also been shown to lead to caput succedaneum.

Fortunately, this condition is not life-threatening and usually clears up without treatment.

Cephalohematoma

A cephalohematoma is an accumulation of blood below the protective membrane that covers a baby’s skull. It can display as soft lumps that appear on the head hours after birth. These lumps often grow in size until the body reabsorbs the blood.

Cephalohematomas occur if there is too much pressure on a baby’s head during delivery due to long labor, the use of forceps or vacuum extractors, and other factors. This condition may lead to other complications, such as jaundice or the breakdown of red blood cells.

Erb’s Palsy and Other Brachial Plexus Injuries

The brachial plexus is a group of nerves that connect the spinal cord and control muscles in the arm, wrist, hands, and fingers. If the brachial plexus becomes damaged, Erb’s Palsy may occur, disrupting mobility and potentially leading to muscle weakness or paralysis.

When pressure is placed on the neck or shoulders during delivery, the brachial plexus nerves can be stretched, ruptured, or severed. Erb’s palsy and other brachial plexus injuries are typically caused by shoulder dystocia or the misuse of vacuum extractors or forceps.

Infant Hematoma

Infant hematoma occurs when there is bleeding in the brain following a head injury. This bleeding may form blood clots, putting additional pressure on the brain. In extreme cases, doctors may need to perform surgery or remove a portion of the skull to relieve pressure.

Oxygen Deprivation

When the umbilical cord wraps around a baby’s neck, or if the placenta separates prematurely, it can cut off an adequate supply of oxygen that the baby’s brain needs. Oxygen deprivation can damage the part of the brain controlling body motor functions (cerebellum) and has been linked to cerebral palsy.

If babies cannot breathe independently or return to normal oxygen levels within minutes, the brain cells may become damaged. Even with intensive care, oxygen deprivation can lead to seizures, coma, and death.

Spinal Cord Injuries

Most spinal cord injuries are caused by trauma to the neck area, and they require immediate medical attention. That said, many spinal cord injuries do not heal and cause life-long disabilities, including loss of sensation and function in the lower half of the body (paraplegic) or a loss of feeling in movement from the chest down (quadriplegic).

Subconjunctival Hemorrhage

A subconjunctival hemorrhage is bleeding that occurs when blood vessels in the eyes burst. It presents as a bright red band around the iris. It typically does not cause permanent damage to the eyes and disappears over time.

Prognosis for Children With Birth Traumas

The outlook for babies suffering from common birth traumas can vary greatly.

 ExamplesTreatmentsRecovery Time
Mild Birth TraumaCaput succedaneum, mild bruisesLittle to no treatment requiredMay resolve within days or weeks
Moderate Birth TraumaErb's palsy and other brachial plexus injuriesTreatments may include medications, therapy, and/or surgeryMay take several months or years for full recovery
Severe Birth TraumaCerebral palsy, spinal cord injuriesLifelong treatments (medications, therapy) will be required — periodic surgery may also be neededA child cannot completely recover, but the condition can be managed

One of the most critical factors in dealing with birth trauma is recognizing and treating the injury early on. Birth traumas may need immediate treatment by pediatric doctors to prevent any potential long-term damage.

If medical professionals do not take the right action at the right time, the consequences of the traumatic experience can be severe.

Compensation for Birth Trauma

Life after birth trauma can be uncertain — but help is available. With legal assistance, you may be able to receive financial compensation to cover any medical expenses that stem from your child’s injury. You can also use this money to pay for anything else your child needs, such as a wheelchair, medications, and different types of therapy.

If your child suffered from preventable birth trauma, don’t wait to see if you can access financial aid. Speak with one of our caring and knowledgeable Patient Advocates who can tell you more about pursuing compensation after a birth injury. To start this process now, get 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.

View 6 Sources
  1. Boston Children's Hospital. (n.d.). Spinal Cord Injury. Retrieved November 30, 2020, from https://www.childrenshospital.org/conditions-and-treatments/conditions/s/spinal-cord-injury
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2017, January 20). FastStats - Births and Natality. Retrieved November 30, 2020, from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/births.htm
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018). National Vital Statistics Reports. Retrieved November 30, 2020, from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr69/NVSR-69-7-508.pdf
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, February 24). FastStats - Birthweight. Retrieved November 30, 2020, from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/birthweight.htm
  5. Raines, D. (2020, August 13). Cephalohematoma. Retrieved November 30, 2020, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK470192/
  6. Stanford Children's Health. (n.d.). Birth Injury. Retrieved November 30, 2020, from https://www.stanfordchildrens.org/en/topic/default?id=birth-injury-90-P02340
Back to Top