Perinatal Asphyxia & Its Causes

In 2001, tiny Jacques Poussier was born with the umbilical cord wrapped twice around his neck. This caused perinatal asphyxia, a dangerous condition that can lead to serious birth injuries. But the quick action of doctors saved his life. 

Doctors placed Jacques on a cooling blanket to lower his body temperature. After three days, they slowly brought his temperature back up. As a result, Jacques suffered no ill effects from his harrowing birth complication. He was able to enjoy a normal childhood in good health. 

When medical professionals recognize birth asphyxia causes and treat them without delay, babies like Jacques can make a full recovery. Do you believe your doctor failed to provide your baby with proper treatment for perinatal asphyxia? Is your child living with a permanent injury because of this? Call our birth injury lawyers for a free evaluation of your case. 

Newborn hospital crib.

What is Perinatal Asphyxia?

Perinatal asphyxia occurs when a baby’s brain or organs don’t get enough oxygen before, during, or after birth. In most cases, this oxygen loss happens because blood flow is restricted or interrupted. 

Blood carries oxygen and nutrients to a baby’s cells. When the cells fail to receive enough oxygen, they will stop functioning properly. This can damage the baby’s tissues and organs. 

Perinatal asphyxia is also known as neonatal asphyxia or birth asphyxia. Here’s a simple explanation of those terms:

  • Perinatal:  “Occurring in, concerned with, or being in the period around the time of birth.” (Merriam Webster Dictionary)
  • Neonatal: Refers to newborn children
  • Asphyxia: A lack of oxygen supply to the body (also known as suffocation). 

Birth Asphyxia Causes

What circumstances could cut off a baby’s blood and oxygen supply? Let’s take a look at how this could happen. 

  • Prolonged or difficult labor and delivery
  • The mother or baby has an infection
  • Placental issues, such as placental abruption (when the placenta separates from the wall of the uterus) 
  • Umbilical cord issues, such as knots
  • Low red blood cell count (anemia) in the baby
  • The mother’s blood has low oxygen levels before or during birth 
  • The baby is born with respiratory problems 
  • During labor, the mother’s uterus fails to relax (this can stifle oxygen circulation)
  • A lack of amniotic fluid in the womb
  • The mother has preeclampsia 

These aren’t the only birth asphyxia causes. But they are some of the most common. Some are preventable, others are not. Doctors may be able to stop birth asphyxia before it happens by recognizing potential risk factors, which we’ll take a look at next. 

Perinatal Asphyxia Risk Factors

The following conditions may lead to neonatal asphyxia. But that doesn’t mean they always will. With proper preventative treatment, doctors can keep babies out of harm’s way, despite their high risk for developing oxygen deficiency.

  • The mother is younger than 18 or older than 40
  • Premature birth
  • Late-term birth
  • An abnormal birth position (ex. posterior or breech)
  • Poor prenatal care and nutrition
  • The mother is anemic
  • Excessive vaginal bleeding before/during labor and delivery 
  • Birth of twins or other multiples  

Symptoms of Birth Asphyxia 

During and after birth, certain signs can alert doctors that a baby is suffering from a lack of oxygen. They include:

  • Pale or blue skin
  • No crying, or weak crying
  • Weak reflexes
  • Low blood pressure
  • Weak heart rate
  • The baby is catatonic (unresponsive)
  • Poor muscle tone 
  • Seizures
  • Respiratory distress (trouble breathing)

By providing quick, proper care, doctors can reverse the effects of birth asphyxia. Many infants make a full recovery. 

To treat asphyxia, doctors might give the mother oxygen during delivery. They may have her change positions while giving birth. In serious cases, they might order an emergency C-section to deliver the baby right away. 

After a baby is born, treatment might include medication and respiratory support. In severe cases, the infant could require a breathing tube or a heart-lung pump. 

Cooling therapy (Therapeutic hypothermia) is a fairly new method that can reduce the likelihood of severe brain damage. This therapy lowers a baby’s body temperature to lessen the effects of oxygen deprivation. Like Jacques Poussier, Babies treated with cooling therapy often make a full recovery.

Birth Injuries from Perinatal Asphyxia

According to the World Health Organization, birth asphyxia is still one of the leading causes of neonatal death. An estimated 900,000 babies worldwide die from this condition each year. 

With adequate fetal monitoring and post-natal care, doctors can sometimes prevent perinatal asphyxia. If they can’t prevent it, they should try to restore the baby’s oxygen levels as quickly as possible. Otherwise, the baby could develop serious birth injuries, such as:

Sometimes, birth asphyxia causes hidden conditions that don’t show up right away. 

They may develop years after birth. 

It’s difficult for doctors to tell how much of an impact neonatal asphyxia will have. The severity of injury depends on how long the baby was deprived of oxygen, and how much oxygen (if any) they received. 

Perinatal Asphyxia and Medical Negligence

Birth asphyxia causes brain damage and other injuries when doctors fail to treat it. That’s not to say every asphyxia injury is a doctor’s fault. But some do stem from medical negligence

What constitutes medical negligence? The law defines it as a “breach of the standard of care.” Let’s translate that from legalese into English. It means that a doctor didn’t do what any competent, trained doctor would do in a specific situation. 

Here are some examples of negligence:

When a medical professional’s negligence causes an injury, filing a medical malpractice suit may be the way to go. If you have all the evidence necessary to prove your case, you may win monetary compensation. This compensation can help pay for your child’s past, present, and future medical treatment. 

Parent files a perinatal asphyxia lawsuit for child.

Getting Legal Help for a Perinatal Asphyxia Lawsuit

Let’s say a doctor fails to recognize the symptoms of perinatal asphyxia. The baby doesn’t receive enough oxygen for a prolonged amount of time. The result is a severe, permanent brain injury. Now the child will need lifelong, round-the-clock care. 

In that case, the child’s parents may be able to sue the hospital and/or the doctors who failed to treat their baby. But they must prove three things:

  • The baby was in the care of the negligent physician.
  • Your doctor was negligent, either by action or inaction.
  • The doctor’s negligence was the direct cause of the baby’s injury. 

The first item in that list sounds simple enough to prove. But the second two items are a different ball game. You’re going to need “heavy hitters” to win a settlement (or win at court). These include a competent team of birth injury lawyers and one or more medical experts. 

The lawyers will help you retrieve hospital records and file all the paperwork necessary for your lawsuit. The medical experts will provide essential paperwork to prove your case as well. They may also give their opinion as testimony should your case go to trial. 

To get legal help for your case, contact our birth injury lawyers for a free initial consultation. We offer risk-free representation. We take birth injury cases on a contingency-fee basis. You have nothing to lose, and everything to gain. Find out more about our birth injury attorney team here.