Neonatal Infection

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

A neonatal infection is any disease or virus contracted by an unborn or newborn baby. In severe cases, a neonatal infection can result in extreme immune responses that lead to permanent brain damage and cerebral palsy.

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Neonatal Infection Explained

Neonatal infections occur when unborn or newborn babies contract an illness or other disease. There are many types of neonatal infections, including viral, bacterial, parasitic, and fungal. Many neonatal infections are minor and can be quickly reversed with proper diagnosis and care. However, some neonatal infections are very serious.

Severe infections can harm organs and tissues or cause immune responses that lead to permanent brain damage. When an infection damages the part of the brain called the cerebral cortex, it can have irreversible effects on the baby’s motor skills, muscle development, and coordination. When an infection results in this type of brain damage, the infant is diagnosed with cerebral palsy.

In many cases, neonatal infections are preventable and treatable. Medical professionals should take extra precautionary measures when they are aware of an increased risk of infection for a pregnant mother and her infant.

When Do Neonatal Infections Happen?

Infections can be caused by exposure to one of many different microbes. Depending on what the baby was exposed to and how, neonatal infections can be viral, bacterial, fungal, or parasitic. They may be contracted from the mother, medical professionals, birthing tools, or the surrounding environment during delivery.

Neonatal infections can occur at any stage in a baby’s development, including:

  • In utero/antepartum (before birth)
  • Intrapartum (during birth)
  • Postpartum (after birth)

In Utero Infection

A woman’s body is designed to protect an unborn baby from infection, but it’s still possible for some infections to occur. Medical procedures conducted on the vagina, uterus, or the placenta can cause infection, which may then be transferred to an unborn baby.

While the placenta does have protective mechanisms to keep infections out, some infections are able to reach a baby through the mother’s bloodstream. This line of defense is called the blood-placental barrier.

Intrapartum Infection

Babies can also pick up illnesses while they are being born in what are known as intrapartum infections. These infections occur when viruses, bacteria, fungi, or parasites are passed on to the baby from the mother’s body or the birthing environment.

Infants are at increased risk for infection the longer the infant is in the uterus after the amniotic fluid has ruptured (water breaking). After 18 hours post-rupture and still undelivered, the risk of infection for the infant increases.

Intrapartum infections range significantly in severity, from minor to deadly.

Intrapartum infections can include:

  • Hepatitis
  • HIV
  • Herpes simplex virus (HSV)
  • Urinary tract infections
  • Toxoplasmosis
  • Strep viruses

If the mother has an illness they know about, they should tell their doctor so precautionary measures can be taken.

Postpartum Infection

Babies may also develop postpartum infections immediately after birth. Lacerations or wounds caused by the birthing process may leave a baby open to infection. Hospital equipment or birthing environments that are not properly sterilized can also cause a baby to become infected.

Nurse’s Note:

Chorioamnionitis, commonly known as “chorio,” is a frequent infection in hospitals, often identified when a mother in labor develops a fever over 100.4. Immediate antibiotic treatment is essential for the mother and may also be necessary for the infant post-delivery, depending on the infant’s risk of infection and other factors.

Neonatal Infection Complications

If left untreated, neonatal infections can lead to severe complications like meningitis or sepsis. These dangerous conditions can lead to permanent brain damage and cerebral palsy.


Meningitis is a serious medical condition in which the meninges membrane, which covers the brain and spinal cord, becomes infected. Meningitis is typically a viral or bacterial condition, but it can also be caused by a fungus, chemical reaction, or a drug allergy.

Primary infections that can lead to meningitis include HIV, herpes, measles, mumps, influenza, and West Nile Virus. These infections need to be treated immediately, as they can also lead to permanent brain damage that results in cerebral palsy or even death.


Severe bloodstream infections like E. coli, listeria, streptococcus, and HIV can lead to sepsis—a condition in which a newborn baby’s immune system attacks his or her own organs and tissues. These immune responses can trigger encephalitis (brain swelling), septic shock (decline in the function of multiple organs), or meningitis.

Neonatal Infection Risk Factors

Certain risk factors increase the chances a baby will contract a neonatal infection. Risk factors mean that the odds of infection are increased due to factors like demographics or pre-existing conditions. However, risk factors do not guarantee your baby will develop a neonatal infection.

Risk factors for neonatal infection include:

  • Premature birth
  • Low birth rate
  • Maternal infection
  • Birth complications
  • Mother’s water breaking early
  • Prolonged labor
  • If the baby is a male

Premature birth is the highest risk factor for neonatal infection. The earlier a baby is born, the higher their risk of infection. While in utero, a baby’s immune system gradually develops over time, increasing as he or she gets closer to full-term. Premature babies don’t have the same immune development as babies born at term.

Neonatal Infection Symptoms

Doctors and medical professionals recognize neonatal infections by identifying the symptoms associated with sepsis or meningitis.

Neonatal infection symptoms include:

  • Respiratory problems
  • Slow or fast heart rate
  • Newborn jaundice
  • Seizures
  • Bulging soft spot
  • Inconsistent temperature
  • Low blood pressure
  • Low urine production
  • Lethargy or slow responses
  • Failing to respond to antibiotics
  • Signs of shock

Neonatal Infection Effects

The short-term and long-term effects of a neonatal infection are determined by the severity and type of infection as well as how quickly and accurately it’s treated. When neonatal infections are diagnosed and treated immediately, babies often make a full recovery.

However, severe infections or a misdiagnosis can lead to irreversible brain damage, resulting in cerebral palsy. Cerebral palsy has lifelong impacts on a person, as it can disrupt motor skills, balance, muscle development, and muscle control.

Neonatal Infection Diagnosis

The medical community does not have a simple, agreed-upon standard for diagnosing neonatal infection. Instead, doctors rely on a patient’s background, existing symptoms and their experience to determine if a baby may have a neonatal infection. They will then perform several tests to make an official diagnosis.

Typically, doctors will look for specific signs of neonatal infection through a blood test. The most common blood test for diagnosing infection is the complete blood count (CBC), which evaluates a baby’s overall health.

To help determine the nature of the infection, doctors will examine blood samples for biomarkers. Biomarkers are any measurable substance that may tell them if an infection is present.

Common biomarkers include:

  • C-reactive protein (an inflammation biomarker)
  • Procalcitonin (sepsis or bacterial infection biomarkers)
  • Interleukin (immune system biomarkers)

However, because there is no single test for all neonatal infections, false positives and false negatives are possible with blood tests. If the blood test indicates a problem, a doctor may also choose to order a CT scan and spinal tap to confirm a diagnosis.

Nurse’s Note:

When an infant infection is suspected, doctors quickly perform a CBC and blood culture, with a CRP test to detect inflammation. While blood culture results take 48 hours, other lab findings and the infant’s medical history may prompt immediate antibiotic treatment.

Neonatal Infection Treatment and Therapy

Treatment for a neonatal infection will vary greatly depending on the suspected cause of the infection and whether sepsis or meningitis has occurred. Doctors should treat babies as quickly as possible to minimize immediate health complications stemming from a neonatal infection.

If infections are more severe, then babies may need long-term treatments to help manage the resulting complications.

Short-Term Treatment

Antibiotics are usually the main treatment option for a bacterial infection. For example, antibiotics are often used to treat a baby with signs of sepsis. Doctors will choose specific types of antibiotics that are known to work better against sepsis-causing bacteria, such as E. coli and Group B streptococcus (GBS).

Meningitis can be harder to treat because the cause may be bacterial or viral. If symptoms are severe and the cause is unclear, both antibiotics and antiviral medications may be prescribed until the source of the infection is known.

Long-Term Treatment

When neonatal infections cause irreversible brain damage and lead to cerebral palsy, the child may require lifelong treatments. Cerebral palsy can’t be reversed, but treatment and therapy can reduce the impacts of their symptoms and teach a person how to work with their body to overcome physical, mental, and emotional challenges.

Standard treatments for cerebral palsy include:

  • Orthotics, braces & supports
  • Walking aids
  • Physical therapy
  • Nutritional guidance
  • Medication

Legal Help for Neonatal Infection and Cerebral Palsy

Cerebral palsy is often caused by a birth complication like a neonatal infection. In some cases, a neonatal infection wasn’t treated in time due to medical negligence. In these cases, families may be eligible to file a claim and seek legal compensation that will help pay for therapy, medication, treatment, and any special needs costs that arise from their cerebral palsy diagnosis.

If your child or family member is diagnosed with cerebral palsy, work with an attorney experienced in cerebral palsy cases to get the compensation you need. Contact the Birth Injury Justice Center today at 800-914-1562 to get a free medical case review.

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.

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