While giving birth is a relatively safe procedure in the US, it still is not without risk to both the mother and the infant. One of the most frightening risks for soon-to-be-parents is the risk of a birth injury.
Birth injuries are any type of injury or trauma that may occur during labor and delivery. By definition a birthmark is a type of birth injury. While birthmarks are harmless, other types of birth injuries are not and may adversely affect the health of the infant.
Some examples of more serious birth injuries include:
- Birth asphyxia: occurs when there is inadequate intake of oxygen, which can be caused during birth if the umbilical cord becomes wrapped around the baby's neck, cutting of the oxygen supply. Birth asphyxia can cause long term damage to the brain and other internal organs and even death, depending on how long the oxygen supply is cut off.
- Cerebral palsy: a non-progressive disorder that affects the parts of the brain that control muscle movement and coordination. Cerebral palsy can be caused before, during or after birth when oxygen is cut off to the baby's brain.
- Meconium aspiration syndrome: occurs when the baby inhales meconium (i.e. baby's first bowel movement) and amniotic fluid into the lungs during birth. It is the leading cause of illness and death in newborns in the US and normally happens in cases when the fetus is stressed during delivery, which can occur if the baby is past his or her due date.
- Erb's palsy: nerve damage that causes paralysis in the baby's arm, hand and/or fingers. It occurs when the network of nerves near the baby's neck are stretched, which can occur during birth if too much force is used to remove the baby from the birth canal. It also can occur if the baby becomes lodged behind the mother's pelvis, requiring the use of forceps or vacuum to remove him or her. Most children will fully recover from the nerve damage, but some children will suffer permanent injury
- Fractures: clavicle, or collarbone, fractures are the most common in newborns, but other bones also can be broken during delivery.
Birth Injuries and Medical Malpractice
While most birth injuries are relatively minor and will not result in long-term harm to the baby, some of them are very serious and may impair the baby's physical and mental development, and in some cases, even result in death.
It is estimated that as many as 2% of all birth injuries are the result of medical malpractice. Doctors who provide prenatal care to pregnant women and oversee their labor and delivery are responsible for taking reasonable steps to protect the health of the mother and baby. This includes taking appropriate action to protect and treat the mother for infection and illness while pregnant and monitoring the vital signs of mother and fetus during labor and delivery. When the treating physician is alerted of changes in the vital signs, then the physician has a responsibility to take timely, appropriate steps to protect the mother and infant. This may include inducing labor or performing a C-Section, for example.
Obstetricians and the attending medical staff may commit medical malpractice when they:
- Fail to treat the mother for infection during pregnancy
- Fail to anticipate birth complications and take appropriate steps to correct or minimize the harm
- Fail to respond to bleeding before or during labor
- Fail to monitor the baby's vital signs, including heart rate and oxygen
- Fail to respond to signs of fetal distress
- Fail to take appropriate action when the fetus becomes entangled in the umbilical cord
- Fail to perform or delay performance of an emergency c-section
- Give the mother too much pitocin, a drug used to induce labor, causing harm to the baby
- Use too much force removing the baby from the birth canal, either manually or with the aid of a vacuum or forceps, resulting in injury to the baby
Obstetricians are not the only ones who may act negligently and cause a birth injury. Midwives, nurses and other hospital staff responsible for monitoring the mother during labor and the child after delivery also can cause birth injuries.
For more information on your legal rights following a birth injury, contact an experienced medical malpractice attorney.