Brain Damage at Birth

Fact-Checked and Medically Reviewed by:
Katie Lavender, RN Registered Nurse
Quick Answer

Newborn brain damage is often caused by physical injury during the birthing process and is one of the most common birth injuries. Sadly, these injuries can lead to lifelong physical and mental disabilities. If your child's brain damage could have been avoided, your family may be entitled to financial compensation. This compensation can ensure your child receives the best care possible. Read more to find out if your family may be eligible.

Get a Free Case Review

About Brain Injury at Birth

A delivery doctor holds a newborn baby.

Brain injury occurs when cells in the brain are damaged or destroyed. Unfortunately, many children suffer from permanent brain damage at birth.

The brain can become damaged from:

  • Lack of oxygen (hypoxia)
  • Newborn jaundice or kernicterus (buildup of bilirubin)
  • Physical head injuries while exiting the birth canal
  • Viral or bacterial infections

Children may be able to recover completely from mild brain damage. However, more severe cases can lead to permanent disability and may require lifelong medical treatment. Severe newborn brain damage can lead to conditions like cerebral palsy.

If your child suffered from infant brain damage and you believe it could have been prevented, you may be eligible for financial compensation. Learn more about taking legal action for brain damage caused by medical negligence by getting a free case review now.

Get a Free Case Review

A free case review is the first step in pursuing compensation for you and your family.

Get a Free Case Review

What Causes Brain Injury at Birth?

Common causes of brain damage at birth include several conditions and injuries that can lead to localized or widespread harm.

Localized brain damage occurs when a health condition or trauma causes injury to a specific area of the brain. Widespread brain damage occurs when a condition or trauma causes injury throughout the brain.

Did you know

According to Mayo Clinic, children are among those at highest risk of traumatic brain injury, especially newborns to 4-year-olds.

Learn more about what can cause both types of brain damage at birth.

Localized Brain Injury at Birth

The following conditions can damage specific areas of the brain:

  • Aneurysm: A widening and weakening of the wall of blood vessels, which can be caused by high blood pressure or a blood vessel defect during birth.
  • Physical injury: Forceps delivery complications or vacuum extraction complications can cause significant birth trauma to the head and brain.
  • Stroke: This may occur due to a lack of blood flow and low oxygen levels in the baby’s blood.

Widespread Brain Damage at Birth

These conditions can cause injury throughout the brain:

  • Hypoxia: This occurs when the infant’s brain does not get enough oxygen (oxygen deprivation) during childbirth.
  • Infection: Viral or bacterial infections, such as meningitis, can affect the development of an unborn child’s brain.
  • Poisoning: Toxins, such as methylmercury, are known to cause widely distributed damage in the developing infant brain.
Nurse’s Note:

Exposure to poisons during pregnancy, like methylmercury, can harm the fetus’s developing brain. These toxins can bypass protective barriers like the placenta and the infant’s blood-brain barrier, posing a significant risk to the baby’s health.

Types of Newborn Brain Damage

Each case of newborn brain damage can differ in severity and symptoms. Although no two cases are completely alike, certain types of brain damage share similar characteristics.

Researchers and medical professionals separate brain damage cases into three groups – mild injuries, moderate injuries, and severe injuries.

  • Mild injuries: Mild newborn brain trauma can cause infant hematoma and skull fractures.
  • Moderate injuries: Moderate newborn brain damage can cause extended bleeding, significant fractures, subdural hemorrhages (bleeding between the brain and the skull), and hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy (HIE).
  • Severe injuries: Severe brain damage is caused by excessive pressure from bleeding and seizures. Infant brain injury or birth trauma can also result in severe brain damage. Some types of severe brain damage at birth include periventricular leukomalacia, intraventricular hemorrhage, and anoxic brain injury (complete lack of oxygen).

Cases of mild and moderate brain damage at birth typically require less medical intervention than a severe injury. Sadly, children with severe brain damage may suffer from significant lifelong physical and neurological impairments.

If you believe your baby suffered a brain injury at birth, you probably have questions and may wish to talk with a medical professional. However, for many families, bringing concerns to their doctor can be extremely uncomfortable and can feel confrontational. This may be especially true if you suspect medical negligence took place.

We can help. Our labor and delivery nurses are available to talk with you in confidence and help you learn what may have happened. Connect with one of our registered nurses now.

Nurse Beth Carter

Talk to A Nurse Now

Call or chat with a caring, experienced nurse right now — we’re standing by to get you help and answers.

Early Signs of Brain Damage in Newborns

Parents and caregivers should look out for several signs and symptoms of brain damage at birth. Symptoms can vary based on your child’s age, severity of injury, and type of brain damage.

Signs of Brain Damage in Baby

Brain damage in newborns can show up in several ways. Recognizing these signs is crucial for early diagnosis and effective treatment.

Early signs of brain damage in newborns include:
  • Abnormally large forehead or small head
  • Abnormally shaped spine
  • Arched back while crying
  • Breathing problems
  • Difficulty eating or swallowing
  • Excessive drooling
  • High-pitched crying
  • Loose muscles and unusual posture
  • Neck stiffness
  • Seizures
  • Stiff muscles

Additionally, you may have been told that your baby had a low Apgar score. The Apgar test is performed at 1 and 5 minutes following birth to evaluate whether a baby needs extra care. Low Apgar scores can sometimes mean that brain damage at birth occurred.

Nurse’s Note:

Infant delivery nurses quickly assess the newborn’s breathing, muscle tone, reflexes, skin color, and heart rate, which make up the Apgar score. If the baby shows any deficiencies at one minute, we intervene immediately. Depending on the newborn’s condition, we may need to provide oxygen, chest compressions, or life-saving medication. Delays in necessary interventions can increase the risk of brain damage to the infant.

Can Brain Damage Be Detected at Birth?

It may not be obvious that your baby suffered brain damage at birth. This is why it is important to continue monitoring your child in their first few years if you think they may have been put at risk.

Monitoring your child’s developmental milestones and looking for the following signs can be an important tool.

Signs of brain damage in toddlers include:

  • Difficulty walking
  • Lack of fine motor skills and coordination
  • Poor muscle control
  • Seizures
  • Speech problems
  • Tremors or shakiness
  • Vision problems

Signs of brain damage in children include:

  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Epilepsy (recurring seizures)
  • Extreme mood swings
  • Loss of balance and coordination
  • Muscular weakness on one side of the body
  • Persistent headaches
  • Problems with memory
  • Sensitivity to light or sound
  • Slurred speech
  • State of disorientation or a “dazed” look

It is important to contact a medical professional to get an accurate diagnosis if your child is showing symptoms of brain damage. Doctors can help you get your child the treatment they need to manage their condition.

If you think your child could have developmental delays due to brain injury at birth, take our free milestones quiz now.

IS YOUR CHILD MISSING DEVELOPMENTAL MILESTONES?

Take Our Milestones Quiz

Taking note of your child’s physical, social, and emotional skills can help you determine if they potentially suffered from an injury at birth. An early diagnosis can help your child get the treatment they need as soon as possible.

Q1: How old is your child?

0-2 Months

3-4 Months

5-6 Months

7-9 Months

10-12 Months

13-18 Months

19-23 Months

24+ Months

0-2 MONTHS DEVELOPMENTAL MILESTONES QUIZ

  • Q2: Can your child hold their head steadily on their own?
  • Q3: Can your child push themselves up when they are lying on their stomach?
  • Q4: Has your child started to make smoother movements with their arms and legs?
  • Q5: Does your child smile at other people?
  • Q6: Can your child bring their hands to their mouth?
  • Q7: Does your child turn their head when they hear a noise?
  • Q8: Does your child coo or make gurgling noises?
  • Q9: Does your child follow things with their eyes?
  • Q10: Does your child try to look at their parents or caregivers?
  • Q11: Does your child show boredom, cry, or fuss when engaged in an activity that hasn’t changed in a while?
0-2-years old child

3-4 MONTHS DEVELOPMENTAL MILESTONES QUIZ

  • Q2: Can your child hold their head steadily on their own?
  • Q3: Does your child push down on their legs when their feet are on a flat surface?
  • Q4: Has your child started to roll over from their stomach to their back?
  • Q5: Can your child hold and shake a toy such as a rattle?
  • Q6: Does your child bring their hands to their mouth?
  • Q7: Does your child play with people and start to cry when the playing stops?
  • Q8: Does your child smile spontaneously, especially at people?
  • Q9: Does your child copy some movements and facial expressions of other people?
  • Q10: Does your child babble with expressions and copy sounds they hear?
  • Q11: Does your child cry in different ways to show hunger, pain, or tiredness?
  • Q12: Does your child respond to affection like hugging or kissing?
  • Q13: Does your child follow moving things with their eyes from side to side?
  • Q14: Does your child recognize familiar people at a distance?
3-4-years old child

5-6 MONTHS DEVELOPMENTAL MILESTONES QUIZ

  • Q2: Can your child roll over on both sides (front to back/back to front)?
  • Q3: Has your child begun to sit without support?
  • Q4: Does your child rock back and forth?
  • Q5: Can your child support their weight on their legs (and perhaps bounce) when standing?
  • Q6: Has your child begun to pass things from one hand to the other?
  • Q7: Does your child bring objects such as toys to their mouth?
  • Q8: Does your child know if someone is not familiar to them and is a stranger?
  • Q9: Does your child respond to other people’s emotions, such as a smile or a frown?
  • Q10: Does your child enjoy looking at themselves in the mirror?
  • Q11: Does your child look at things around them?
  • Q12: Does your child respond to sounds they hear by making sounds themselves?
  • Q13: Does your child make sounds to show joy or displeasure?
  • Q14: Does your child respond to their own name?
  • Q15: Has your child started to string vowels together, such as "ah," "eh," or "oh," or started to say consonant sounds such as "m" or "b"?
  • Q16: Has your child begun to laugh?
5-6-years old child

7-9 MONTHS DEVELOPMENTAL MILESTONES QUIZ

  • Q2: Can your child crawl?
  • Q3: Can your child stand while holding on to something to support them?
  • Q4: Can your child sit without support?
  • Q5: Can your child pull themselves up to stand?
  • Q6: Does your child play peekaboo?
  • Q7: Can your child move things from one hand to the other?
  • Q8: Can your child pick small things up, such as a piece of cereal, with their thumb and index finger?
  • Q9: Does your child look for things that they see you hide?
  • Q10: Does your child watch the path of something as it falls?
  • Q11: Does your child show fear when around strangers?
  • Q12: Does your child become clingy with adults who are familiar to them?
  • Q13: Does your child have favorite toys?
  • Q14: Does your child use their fingers to point?
  • Q15: Does your child understand “no”?
  • Q16: Does your child make a lot of repetitive sounds, such as “mamama” or “bababa”?
  • Q17: Does your child copy the sounds and gestures of other people?
7-9 years old child

10-12 MONTHS DEVELOPMENTAL MILESTONES QUIZ

  • Q2: Can your child stand alone with no support?
  • Q3: Does your child walk while holding on to furniture?
  • Q4: Can your child take a few steps without holding on to anything?
  • Q5: Can your child get into a sitting position without any help?
  • Q6: Does your child bang two things together when playing?
  • Q7: Does your child poke with their index finger?
  • Q8: Has your child started to use things like hairbrushes or drinking cups correctly?
  • Q9: Does your child find hidden objects easily?
  • Q10: Does your child play peekaboo or pat-a-cake?
  • Q11: Does your child become shy or nervous around strangers?
  • Q12: Does your child repeat actions or sounds to get attention?
  • Q13: Does your child put out an arm or leg to help when getting dressed?
  • Q14: Does your child cry when a parent leaves the room?
  • Q15: Does your child show that they have favorite things or people?
  • Q16: Does your child show fear?
  • Q17: Does your child say things such as “mama,” “dada,” or “uh-oh”?
  • Q18: Does your child try to say the words you say?
  • Q19: Has your child started to use gestures like waving or shaking their head “no”?
10-12 years old child

13-18 MONTHS DEVELOPMENTAL MILESTONES QUIZ

  • Q2: Can your child walk by themselves?
  • Q3: Does your child walk up stairs and run?
  • Q4: Does your child pull toys while walking?
  • Q5: Can your child drink from a cup on their own?
  • Q6: Can your child eat with a spoon on their own?
  • Q7: Can your child help undress themselves?
  • Q8: Does your child have occasional temper tantrums?
  • Q9: Does your child show affection to familiar people?
  • Q10: Does your child become clingy in new situations?
  • Q11: Does your child explore their environment alone with parents close by?
  • Q12: Can your child say several single words?
  • Q13: Can your child say and shake their head “no”?
  • Q14: Does your child point to show things to other people?
  • Q15: Does your child scribble?
  • Q16: Does your child know what ordinary products such as phones, spoons, and brushes are used for?
  • Q17: Can your child follow one-step commands such as “sit down” or “stand up”?
  • Q18: Does your child play with a doll or stuffed animal by pretending to feed it?
13-18 years old child

19-23 MONTHS DEVELOPMENTAL MILESTONES QUIZ

  • Q2: Has your child begun to run?
  • Q3: Has your child kicked a ball?
  • Q4: Can your child climb down and onto furniture on their own?
  • Q5: Can your child walk up and down stairs while holding on?
  • Q6: Can your child stand on their tiptoes?
  • Q7: Has your child thrown a ball overhand?
  • Q8: Does your child copy others, especially people older than them?
  • Q9: Does your child get excited around other children?
  • Q10: Has your child shown more independence as they've aged?
  • Q11: Does your child do what they were told not to do and become defiant?
  • Q12: Does your child point to things when they are named?
  • Q13: Does your child know names of familiar people or body parts?
  • Q14: Does your child say 2 to 4-word sentences?
  • Q15: Does your child repeat words they hear?
  • Q16: Does your child complete sentences and rhymes in familiar books?
  • Q17: Does your child name items in books, such as dogs, cats, and birds?
  • Q18: Does your child play simple pretend games?
  • Q19: Has your child started to use one hand more than the other?
  • Q20: Has your child begun to sort shapes and colors?
  • Q21: Does your child follow 2-step instructions, such as “pick up your hat and put it on your head?”
19-23 years old child

24+ MONTHS DEVELOPMENTAL MILESTONES QUIZ

  • Q2: Can your child run easily?
  • Q3: Can your child climb?
  • Q4: Can your child walk up and down stairs with one foot on each step?
  • Q5: Can your child dress and undress themselves?
  • Q6: Does your child show affection for friends without being told?
  • Q7: Does your child take turns when playing games?
  • Q8: Does your child show concern when others are crying?
  • Q9: Does your child understand the idea of “mine" and "theirs"?
  • Q10: Does your child show many different emotions?
  • Q11: Does your child copy adults and friends?
  • Q12: Does your child separate easily from their parents?
  • Q13: Does your child get upset when there is a major change in their routine?
  • Q14: Does your child say words such as “I,” “me,” “we,” “you,” and some plural nouns?
  • Q15: Can your child say their first name, age, and gender?
  • Q16: Can your child carry on a conversation with 2 to 3 sentences?
  • Q17: Can your child work toys with buttons and other moving parts?
  • Q18: Does your child play pretend with dolls, animals, or people?
  • Q19: Can your child finish 3 or 4 piece puzzles?
  • Q20: Can your child copy a circle when drawing?
  • Q21: Can your child turn pages of a book one page at a time?
  • Q22: Can your child turn door handles?
24 months + old child

Effects of Brain Injury at Birth

Newborn brain damage can lead to a number of behavioral and cognitive abnormalities in children. These effects may change with age as the brain starts to develop.

It is important for parents and caregivers to recognize the effects of brain damage at birth and seek medical care. Getting a proper diagnosis can help your child get prompt treatment.

Here are some common effects of brain injury at birth.
  • Behavioral effects: Brain damage at birth can cause an exaggeration of personality characteristics (such as bursts of increased agitation or anger) that can affect behavior.
  • Cognitive effects: Brain injuries can change a child’s ability to learn, think, and perceive. Children may have issues remembering people and events.
  • Coma and states of reduced awareness: Children who suffered brain damage at birth may constantly seem as if they are in a daze. Some children with severe brain damage may fall into a coma.
  • Communication problems: Infants and children with brain damage may struggle to communicate through spoken language or physical movements.
  • Emotional effects: Individuals suffering from brain damage may suffer from extreme mood swings, depression, or anxiety.
  • Hormonal imbalances: Brain damage can also affect hormone levels in the brain. Hormonal imbalances can cause diabetes, weight gain, or reduced body hair.
  • Physical effects: Traumatic brain injuries can cause problems with mobility, muscle weakness, balance, and coordination.

Can a Baby Recover From Brain Damage?

The most important question new parents have is whether their baby will be okay after suffering from a brain injury at birth.

Unfortunately, the answer varies. Doctors may look at symptoms and determine the infant’s prognosis (likely course of a medical condition) and whether the symptoms will resolve, remain mild, or increase in severity.

The prognosis for newborn brain damage does depend on the severity of the injury itself.

Children with mild brain damage have a good prognosis. Children with moderate to severe brain damage may experience symptoms that can affect their independence and overall quality of life.

It is incredibly important to seek medical intervention as soon as possible to improve your child’s prognosis. Researchers are continuously studying ways to accurately diagnose and treat brain damage to improve overall health outlook.

A study conducted by 7 hospitals in the United Kingdom found that a 15-minute imaging scan called magnetic resonance (MR) spectroscopy showed 98% accuracy in detecting brain damage. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is usually used to detect brain damage and has an accuracy rate of 60-85%.

These technological advances can help improve the prognosis and overall quality of life for children who have suffered brain damage at birth.

Treatment for Brain Injury at Birth

The best and most effective way to treat newborn brain damage is to seek medical help immediately. Although brain damage does not improve or worsen over time, symptoms can be managed through various birth injury treatment options.

Baby sleeping

If an injury is caught early on,
it can often be treated before it seriously harms the baby.

Newborn brain damage treatment options may include:

  • Assistive devices
  • Medication
  • Mobility aids
  • Occupational therapy
  • Physical therapy
  • Speech therapy
  • Surgery

Treatment options vary depending on the type and severity of the brain injury. After providing a brain damage diagnosis, doctors can create a treatment plan tailored to your child’s needs.

Get Help for Brain Damage at Birth

Many families are not prepared to pay for costly birth injury treatments, especially if their child’s injury could have been prevented.

Doctors and medical professionals are expected to uphold a high standard of care during the birthing process. Careless medical errors from health care providers can result in lifelong injury to a baby and may be considered medical negligence.

Thankfully, your family may have options to help pay for your child’s treatment. You may qualify for financial compensation through a lawsuit if your child’s brain damage was caused by medical malpractice.

Get a free case review today to see if you can take legal action.

Birth Injury Support Team
Reviewed by:Katie Lavender, RN

Registered Nurse

  • Fact-Checked
  • Editor

Katie Lavender has over 8 years of experience as a Registered Nurse in postpartum mother/baby care. With hands-on experience in Labor and Delivery and a role as a Community Educator for newborn care, Katie is a staunch advocate for patient rights and education. As a Medical Reviewer, she is committed to ensuring accurate and trustworthy patient information.

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 Sources
  1. Chong, S. (2022, April 26). Head injury during childbirth. Journal of Korean Neurosurgical Society. Retrieved November 19, 2023, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9082121/
  2. Fetal and Neonatal Brain Injury. (2017). In D. Stevenson, W. Benitz, P. Sunshine, S. Hintz, & M. Druzin (Eds.), Fetal and Neonatal Brain Injury (pp. I-Ii). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved November 19, 2023, from https://doi.org/10.1017/9781316275498
  3. Hagberg, H, David Edwards, A, &; Groenendaal, F. (2016, August). Perinatal brain damage: The term infant. Neurobiology of disease. Retrieved November 19, 2023, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4915441/
  4. Ibrahim, N. A., Muhye, A., & Abdulie, S. (2017). Prevalence of Birth Asphyxia and Associated Factors among Neonates Delivered in Dilchora Referral Hospital, in Dire Dawa, Eastern Ethiopia. Clinics in Mother and Child Health, 14(4). Retrieved November 19, 2023, from doi: 10.4172/2090-7214.1000279
  5. Keenan, H. T., Hooper, S. R., Wetherington, C. E., Nocera, M., &; Runyan, D. K. (2007a, March). Neurodevelopmental consequences of early traumatic brain injury in 3-year-old children. Pediatrics. Retrieved November 19, 2023, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2361427/
  6. ScienceDaily. (2018, November 15). A 15-minute scan could help diagnose brain damage in newborns. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 19, 2023, from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/11/181115104557.htm
  7. Traumatic brain injury. (2021, February 04). Retrieved November 19, 2023, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/traumatic-brain-injury/symptoms-causes/syc-20378557
Nurse Beth Carter

Talk to A Nurse Now

Call or chat with a caring, experienced nurse right now — we’re standing by to get you help and answers.