Any physical harm an infant suffers as he or she is in the process of being born is referred to as a birth injury. Damage that occurs to the mother during birth may also fall under this term, but less commonly. A birth injury is distinct from a birth defect which originates or grows while the child is developing in the womb.
An estimated 6 to 8 out of 1000 live births involve some type of birth injury.
Common, less dangerous birth injuries
Many birth injuries are minor and a result of natural birth forces. These less serious birth injuries usually leave no lasting harm to the baby. They can include cephalohematoma (a collection of blood in the scalp), caput succedaneum (swelling of the newborn’s head), facial paralysis (due to pressure on the facial nerve), and fractures (commonly broken collar bones).
More serious birth injuries
Other injuries to the infant are much more severe. Below are some birth injuries that require urgent medical treatment to correct or manage:
- Cerebral palsy. Sometimes this condition may be caused by the congenital malformation of the infant’s brain, which is in fact a birth defect, not a birth injury. However, this is not always the case. When the process of labor is longer than normal and the baby’s supply of oxygen is hindered, the fetal heart monitor will reveal the infant’s distress. Without quick action by medical providers to deliver the baby, it may suffer brain damage to areas that control muscle coordination and body movement, leading to cerebral palsy.
- Brachial plexus injury. When the infant’s head or neck is twisted or pulled to any degree, it can cause damage to the brachial plexus, a collection of nerves located behind the collarbone that controls the arm. If the nerves are simply strained, any paralysis resulting from a brachial plexus injury may eventually heal on its own. However, if the doctor pulled hard enough to sever these nerves, permanent paralysis may result. Damage to the lower nerves can cause Klumpke’s palsy, in which the child loses motion in the hand and wrist. Damage to the upper nerves can cause Erb’s palsy, in which the child loses the ability to flex the elbow and exercise motion in the shoulder. According to Boston Children’s Hospital, 1 to 3 babies per 1,000 experience a brachial plexus injury during birth.
- Spinal cord injuries: These injuries can result from the twisting or pulling forces imposed on the infant’s torso, or the hyperextension of the infant’s head during the delivery process (similar to what occurs prior to a brachial plexus injury). The spinal cord may be completely torn, partially torn, or only bruised. Whether or not the child suffers complete paralysis depends on the location and severity of the injury.
- Hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy (HIE): This injury refers to low oxygen levels (hypoxic) and a restriction or cutoff of the blood supply (ischemic). The injury can inflict extensive brain damage, which may include mental retardation and cerebral palsy. Mild cases of HIE may result in few disabilities. However, moderate and severe HIE may lead to the need for lifelong care of the child.
The standard to recognize and apply when it comes to birth injuries and medical malpractice is whether another doctor would have made the same error. Was the error a reasonable mistake when all factors related to the mother’s pregnancy are taken into account? If the answer is no, you may have strong grounds for a birth injury case.