Birth Injury Causes

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

A birth injury is an injury to an infant during the birthing process. These injuries can be caused by illness, difficult labor or medical malpractice. Some birth injuries are temporary and resolve relatively quickly, while others are debilitating both physically and neurologically and can last a lifetime. Birth injuries that affect the neck and brain are particularly dangerous and can lead to serious conditions like cerebral palsy or brain damage.

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Birth Injury Causes Explained

A birth injury is categorized as an injury to an infant before, during, or directly after the birthing process. Birth injuries may be temporary, with symptoms that resolve in a few days to a few weeks. However, they may also be permanent, with severe symptoms that last for the child’s entire life.

The conditions and factors that led to the birth injury determine the type and scope of the problem. There are maternal conditions, infant conditions, and external factors that can all lead to birth injuries of varying severity.

For instance, oxygen deprivation to the infant immediately before birth can cause brain damage. Infants who suffer brain damage during the birthing process are much more likely to have lifelong neurological problems.

On the other hand, a physician pulling on an infant’s neck to quicken the pace of delivery can damage the nerves connected to the shoulder and arm. This pressure from pulling can cause Erb’s palsy (arm paralysis due to nerve damage).

Infants diagnosed with Erb’s palsy usually have a positive prognosis. However, 20% of children do not make a full recovery creating lifelong difficulties.

Conditions that Can Cause Birth Injury

A number of different conditions can cause a birth injury. Women or infants suffering from these conditions during any portion of the birthing process may be at higher risk.

It is important to understand the maternal, infant, and external conditions associated with a higher risk of birth injury so that they can be identified and avoided.

Maternal Conditions

  • The mother’s pelvis may have the wrong shape or size for a safe delivery: If the mother’s pelvis shape is not conducive to an easy birth, there is the potential for the child to struggle or twist in a manner that reduces their oxygen flow.
  • Difficult labor or delivery (dystocia): Difficult labor may be caused by a fetus that is awkwardly positioned or by a cervix that does not dilate in a normal fashion. Either of these conditions can make it difficult for the child and can cause a birth injury.
  • Prolonged labor: Prolonged labor is generally associated with a higher risk of birth injuries.

Infant Conditions

  • Babies that weigh over 8 pounds and 13 ounces: Heavier infants find the birthing process more difficult and are more susceptible to birth injuries.
  • Babies born before the 37th week of pregnancy (prematurity): Premature births have higher rates of birth injuries because the child’s muscles and nervous system are not fully developed.
  • Abnormal fetal position at birth: Infants born in an abnormal position, such as those in the head-up, buttocks-first or breech positions, are more likely to suffer a birth injury.

External Conditions

  • Physical injury to child during delivery: Physical injuries during the birth process can cause serious birth injuries. These injuries may occur when a doctor uses forceps or the vacuum extraction method during delivery.

Types of Birth Injury Causes

There are several different types of birth injury causes. These causes are typically separated into four groups: delayed birth, oxygen deprivation, medical malpractice, and other causes. Each case is distinct and can lead to injuries with different sets of symptoms.

Delayed Birth

Delayed birth is one of the most common causes of birth injuries. When labor lasts for over 18 hours, it is considered a delayed birth. During a delayed birth, pressure increases on the infant’s head. This pressure can lead to issues developing within the brain.

It can also lead to fetal distress and elevated blood pressure. High blood pressure during the birthing process can cause a stroke or other cardiovascular issues.

Oxygen Deprivation

Oxygen deprivation is a serious problem that can cause a wide range of injuries to newborn infants. Oxygen deprivation may be caused by a prolapsed umbilical cord. If a doctor breaks a patient’s water when she is too early in the labor process and the baby is too high up, it increases the likelihood of umbilical cord prolapse. If a doctor does this to try to speed up the labor process, it presents a risk to the mother and baby.

Nurse’s Note:

When a nurse or physician detects a prolapsed umbilical cord after the mother’s water breaks, immediate action is crucial to prevent the cord from being compressed by the baby. It’s vital that the nurse continues to lift the infant’s head off the cord to avoid oxygen deprivation.

Oxygen deprivation can also occur when lungs have not fully developed, such as those in an infant born prematurely. Most brain-related birth injuries are due to oxygen deprivation during birth. The most severe brain injuries can last for a lifetime.

Medical Malpractice

A doctor’s excessive use of force or medical negligence during delivery can lead to a birth injury. Medical professionals are trained to understand the birthing process and which challenges to be aware of. However, inexperienced staff or impatient doctors can misread data or even cause blunt-force trauma.

For instance, delivery methods such as forceps and vacuum extraction can damage the child’s brain during delivery. Negligent staff may not properly monitor an expectant mother, missing issues such as low oxygen flow to the fetal brain.

Other Causes

There are several other potential birth injury causes. If the child’s body is improperly manipulated during delivery, it can lead to difficulty leaving the birth canal and cause oxygen deprivation. Certain medications can also lead to birth complications, as can viral or bacterial infections in the mother or infant during pregnancy.

How to Determine the Cause of Your Child’s Birth Injury

If you suspect that your child has suffered a birth injury, speak with a doctor as soon as possible. A medical professional will be able to diagnose your child’s injury and determine its cause.

Birth injuries are frightening for parents and distressing for infants. In some cases, it may be helpful to get a second opinion on your child’s injury, especially if the injury is severe or requires a complex treatment plan.

Some birth injuries are caused by maternal or infant factors that are difficult to control. Unfortunately, many of the birth injuries suffered by infants each year stem from medical malpractice and could have been avoided through proper medical care during the birthing process.

If you believe that your child may have suffered a physical birth injury, it is important to speak to a doctor and receive assessment tests to make a diagnosis and determine the scope of the damage.

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
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  2. Akangire, G & Carter, B. (2016). Pediatrics in Review. 37 (11) 451-462; DOI: Retrieved November 19, 2023, from
  3. 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 November 19, 2023, from