Causes of Brain Damage in Newborns

Quick Answer

There are several causes of brain damage in newborns, including oxygen deprivation, maternal infections, and physical trauma. In some cases, infant brain damage is caused by a medical professional’s negligence and could have been prevented with proper care. Learn more about what causes brain damage in newborns and how you may be able to pursue compensation for your child’s medical treatment.

Get a Free Case Review

What Causes Brain Damage in Newborns?

Brain damage is the destruction or deterioration of brain cells.

Newborn brain damage is a type of birth injury often caused by complications before, during, or shortly after birth. These issues can harm an infant’s developing brain and lead to impairments that can potentially affect the child — and the child’s family — for the rest of their life.

Below, we explain some of the different causes of brain damage in newborns.

Asphyxia (oxygen deprivation)

Asphyxia is a term that refers to a lack of oxygen and blood flow to the brain. Birth asphyxia occurs when a baby’s brain and other vital organs do not receive enough oxygen (hypoxia) or any oxygen (anoxia) during labor and delivery.

The severity of brain injury usually depends on:

  • How long the baby is without oxygen
  • How low the baby’s oxygen level drops
  • How quickly treatment is provided

Signs that a newborn has asphyxia include:

  • Bluish or gray skin color
  • Low heart rate
  • Seizures
  • Weak breathing or no breathing

Newborns with mild or moderate asphyxia often make a full recovery. However, in more severe cases, babies may suffer permanent injuries or organ failure that leads to death.

Some common causes of birth asphyxia include:

  • A long or difficult delivery
  • Infection in the mother or infant
  • Low or high maternal blood pressure (preeclampsia)
  • Problems with the umbilical cord or placenta during delivery

Doctors often use breathing support and body cooling (hypothermia) to treat neonatal asphyxia.

Delayed Birth

A delayed birth happens when a baby is not delivered within a proper — and safe — amount of time.

“Prolonged labor, also known as failure to progress, occurs when labor lasts for approximately 20 hours or more if you are a first-time mother, and 14 hours or more if you have previously given birth.”

– American Pregnancy Association

During prolonged labor, pressure is exerted on the baby’s head from the mother’s pelvis or birth canal that can cause head injuries in the newborn. These babies may also experience fetal distress or high blood pressure. A baby who has high blood pressure during childbirth is at risk of having a stroke.

Some factors that may contribute to a delayed birth include:

  • Incorrect use of labor-inducing drugs
  • Maternal obesity
  • Maternal pelvis that is unusually small or abnormally shaped
  • Newborn in breech position (bottom or feet first)
  • Shoulder dystocia (condition in which a baby’s shoulder gets stuck during delivery)

Obstetricians should monitor the baby for fetal distress during labor and take immediate action if there are signs that the infant — or mother — is in any danger. For example, a health care provider may decide to perform a Cesarean section (C-section) or deliver the infant using forceps or other tools.

Sadly, when a doctor fails to monitor the baby or take action to deliver the child, the results can be devastating.

Free Legal Case Review

Do you suspect your child’s brain damage was caused by medical malpractice?

Get a Free Case Review


Newborn jaundice occurs when a substance called bilirubin builds up in an infant’s bloodstream. Babies with this condition have yellowish skin, and the whites of their eyes might appear yellow, too.

Jaundice is common and occurs in about 60% of all babies, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Newborns should be monitored for jaundice if any of these risk factors are present:

  • Feeding problems
  • Mother and baby have different blood types
  • Premature birth
  • Severe bruising during birth

In most cases, jaundice is harmless and can be successfully treated with light therapy, which helps the infant’s body break down and remove bilirubin from the blood. However, if the infant has extremely high bilirubin levels, the doctor may order a blood exchange transfusion.

Unfortunately, when left untreated, jaundice can cause brain damage in a newborn. Kernicterus is a type of severe brain damage that is caused by untreated newborn jaundice.

The CDC has stated that this result is unacceptable. “No baby should develop brain damage from untreated jaundice,” the agency said.

A doctor’s failure to diagnose and treat jaundice may be considered medical malpractice.

If you believe a medical professional’s medical mistake caused your child’s birth injury, the Birth Injury Justice Center may be able to help. Contact one of our team members right now for a free case review.

Maternal Infections

Maternal infections are diseases passed from mother to infant before or during childbirth. While these infections may not cause significant symptoms in the mother, they can lead to brain damage in a vulnerable newborn.

Infections often cause surges in proteins known as cytokines that travel through the brain and blood of a baby during pregnancy. Cytokines cause inflammation, which can result in newborn brain damage.

Some common maternal infections that can cause brain damage in a newborn are:

  • Chicken pox
  • Listeriosis
  • Meningitis
  • Rubella (German measles)
  • Syphilis

Doctors have a responsibility to prevent maternal infections from harming unborn babies. In many cases, they can detect infections by conducting tests at different stages of pregnancy as part of a prenatal care plan.

When a medical professional fails to follow the standard of care and causes a birth injury, they may have committed medical malpractice. A birth injury lawyer can help determine if you have a valid claim.

Physical Trauma

Physical trauma during childbirth, also known as birth trauma, can occur during vaginal and Cesarean deliveries and leave newborns with traumatic brain injuries and other life-altering birth injuries.

Some common causes of physical trauma during birth include:

  • Abnormal birth position
  • Acceleration of labor using medication
  • Extremely quick or delayed deliveries
  • Forceful use of forceps or vacuum extractors
  • Premature rupture or leakage of membranes

In many cases, physical trauma during childbirth is caused by a medical professional’s negligence. If you believe your child’s brain injury was caused by a practitioner’s negligence, our team may be able to help.

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.

What Are the Signs of Brain Damage in Newborns?

In some cases, a newborn’s brain injury may be detected immediately. However, in other cases, signs of brain damage may not appear until weeks or even months later.

Some signs of brain damage in newborn babies include:

  • Developmental delays
  • Feeding problems
  • High or low alertness
  • Irritability
  • Lethargy
  • Seizures or abnormal movements

If your child is showing signs of brain damage, get prompt medical care. After diagnosing your child’s medical condition, a doctor can start treatment to manage symptoms and improve their outcome.

As noted above, brain damage symptoms sometimes appear as developmental delays. For example, a baby might miss milestones such as sitting up or crawling by a certain age.

Take our free Milestones Quiz to find out if your child is on track, but keep in mind that not all delays signal a brain injury.


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


  • 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?
BACKBACK0-2-years old child


  • 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?
BACKBACK3-4-years old child


  • 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?
BACKBACK5-6-years old child


  • 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?
BACKBACK7-9 years old child


  • 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”?
BACKBACK10-12 years old child


  • 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?
BACKBACK13-18 years old child


  • 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?”
BACKBACK19-23 years old child


  • 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?
BACKBACK24 months + old child

Diagnosing Brain Damage in Infants

Pediatric neurologists diagnose infant brain injuries through neurological exams that look at how the child moves and responds.

Additionally, doctors may order one or more of these diagnostic tests:

  • Electroencephalogram (EEG): Monitors the electrical activity in the child’s brain
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): Shows images of brain tissue
  • Ultrasound: Can detect bleeding in the brain or brain tissue injuries

An accurate diagnosis is key to making sure that your child receives the medical interventions they need.

Newborn Brain Damage Outcomes

Brain damage in a newborn can range from mild to severe, depending on the cause and other factors. Mild cases often heal on their own while severe injuries can cause a child to suffer lifelong impairments and require care for the rest of their life.

These conditions may result from newborn brain damage:

  • Cerebral palsy: A group of movement disorders that affect the brain’s control of muscles and the nervous system
  • Hydrocephalus: An accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain that puts pressure on brain tissue and can cause epilepsy and other health problems
  • Hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy (HIE): A type of brain injury that occurs when an infant does not receive enough oxygen and blood flow, resulting in the death of brain cells
  • Newborn cephalohematoma: A buildup of ruptured blood vessels (hemorrhage) in the tissue that covers the skull, which exerts pressure on the brain
  • Periventricular leukomalacia (PVL): A form of brain damage that impacts the white matter of the brain

To learn more about birth injury diagnoses and treatment options, download your free Birth Injury Guide.

Get Help for Newborn Brain Damage

Caring for a newborn with brain damage can take a toll — both emotionally and financially — on you as the caregiver and everyone in your family.

If your child’s brain injury was caused by a preventable medical mistake, the medical professionals responsible should be held accountable. Your family should not bear the burden of paying for your child’s medical treatment if their brain injury could have been avoided.

The good news is that you may be eligible for financial assistance through a medical negligence claim. Compensation from a birth injury settlement can help you pay for your child’s medical treatment and related expenses.

Get a free case review now to learn more about possible legal options. Even if you do not have a medical diagnosis, we may be able to help.

Causes of Brain Damage in Newborns FAQs

What is the most common cause of brain damage in newborns?

Asphyxia (oxygen deprivation) is the most common cause of brain damage in newborns. It occurs when the baby’s brain does not get enough oxygen before, during, or shortly after birth.

Complications that can cause asphyxia include early detachment of the placenta (placental abruption) or an exceptionally long or difficult labor.

Brain damage in babies due to lack of oxygen can be life-altering. The amount of harm usually depends on how long the baby was without oxygen and how quickly treatment was given.

How do I know if my newborn has neurological problems?

In some cases, neurological symptoms are obvious from the time of birth. Sometimes, however, the symptoms are more subtle and may not appear for weeks or even months later.

Signs of neurological issues in a newborn include:

  • Changes in muscle tone
  • Developmental delays
  • Feeding issues
  • Fussiness
  • Movement abnormalities
  • Rapid changes in head size

If your child is exhibiting symptoms of brain damage, or if you simply believe that something is wrong, seek immediate medical attention.

Can newborns recover from brain damage?

Yes, infants can fully recover from brain damage. While the thought of your precious newborn having brain damage can be scary, many babies have mild or moderate brain damage that heals with therapy and other treatments.

However, in cases of severe brain damage, the child may have permanent disabilities and require extensive medical care. Your doctor should be able to tell you what to expect in your child’s specific case.

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 8 Sources
  1. American Pregnancy Association. “Prolonged Labor: Failure To Progress.” Retrieved from: Accessed on February 24, 2023.
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “What are Jaundice and Kernicterus?” Retrieved from: Accessed on February 22, 2023.
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Causes and Risk Factors of Cerebral Palsy.” Retrieved from: Accessed on February 22, 2023.
  4. Children’s Health. “Neurological Disorders in Newborns.” Retrieved from: Accessed on February 23, 2023.
  5. Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC. “Neonatal Neurological Disorder Diagnosis and Symptoms.” Retrieved from: Accessed on February 24, 2023.
  6. Merck Manual Consumer Manual. “Birth Injuries in Newborns.” Retrieved from: Accessed on February 24, 2023.
  7. Ojumah, N., Ramdhan, R. C., Wilson, C., Loukas, M., Oskouian, R. J., & Tubbs, R. S. (2017). Neurological Neonatal Birth Injuries: A Literature Review. Cureus, 9(12), e1938. Retrieved from: Accessed on February 24, 2023.
  8. Seattle Children’s Hospital. “Birth Asphyxia.” Retrieved from: Accessed on February 22, 2023.
Back to Top