Stroke in Utero: What Causes a Fetal Stroke?

Chances are you’ve heard of adult strokes. But did you know babies in the womb can have them, too? In the United States, stroke in utero affects 1 in 2,500 to 1 in 4,000 live births every year. 

Stay with us to learn why and how an in utero stroke happens, and how it can affect a baby. If you suspect doctors mishandled your baby’s stroke, contact us for a free evaluation of your case. 

Pregnant mother worried over baby's stroke in utero.

What is a Stroke in Utero?

During a stroke, blood flow to the brain is blocked or interrupted. The usual cause is a blood clot or bleeding around the brain (ischemic stroke).

 “In utero” means in the womb. So a stroke in utero is a disruption in the blood flow to the baby’s brain while still in the mother’s womb.

A stroke in utero is also called a fetal stroke or perinatal stroke. But those terms can also refer to strokes that happen during delivery, or after the baby is born. 

What causes a fetal stroke?

Several factors can cause an in utero stroke. They include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Blood clots
  • Infections
  • Umbilical cord problems
  • Maternal health conditions (like blood clotting disorders or high blood pressure)
  • Genetic conditions
  • Congenital factors (such as structural abnormalities in the baby’s brain or blood vessels)

Not all fetal strokes have a known cause. Sometimes they happen even when there are no identifiable risk factors. 

That being said, there are certain measures pregnant women can take to lower their risk of stroke in utero. We’ll take a look at those next. 

Lowering the Risk of In Utero Strokes

What can pregnant women do to lower the risk of a fetal stroke? Here are some examples:

  • Getting regular prenatal check-ups.
  • Managing underlying medical conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, or blood clotting disorders.
  • Avoiding smoking and alcohol.
  • Eating a balanced diet to support healthy fetal development.
  • Avoiding certain medications, as indicated by a health care provider.
  • Reducing stress as much as possible.
  • Getting regular ultrasound scans so doctors can detect potential issues early on.
Looking at ultrasound image.

What Happens After a Stroke in Utero?

A stroke in utero reduces blood flow to the brain. The affected part of the baby’s brain may not receive enough oxygen and nutrients. This can lead to brain damage.

Fetal strokes can have varying degrees of impact on the baby’s development and health. It all depends on the location and severity of the stroke.

 In some cases, the baby may show signs of developmental delays, motor impairments, or other neurological issues as they grow.

An in utero stroke are related to several health conditions, such as:

In Utero Strokes and Cerebral Palsy

Cerebral palsy is a condition that affects a person’s movement, muscle tone, and posture. It is caused by damage to the developing brain, such as a stroke in utero. 

In fact, fetal strokes are one of the leading causes of cerebral palsy (CP). One study found that 76 of 111 babies who had a stroke also had CP. That’s 68 percent!

Those numbers can leave you wondering what can be done to prevent perinatal strokes. Unfortunately, there isn’t a sure-fire way to keep them from happening. 

This is why it’s so important for doctors to be vigilant during pregnancy and conduct regular ultrasounds to detect any signs of potential problems. Early detection and appropriate medical interventions can help manage the consequences of a stroke in utero. It may also lessen the risk of cerebral palsy. 

Pregnant mother receives prenatal care.

Treatment for In Utero Stroke

If you think it’s hard to treat a fetus that’s still in the womb, you’re right. It’s hard to get access to a fetus, so treatment options for stroke in utero are limited.

So the focus shifts to managing a child’s symptoms after birth. As soon as they leave the womb, babies who suffer strokes should receive immediate medical attention. 

Initial treatment for a fetal stroke may include:

  • Cooling therapy (lowering the temperature of the baby’s head to prevent further brain damage)
  • IV fluids
  • Blood thinners to prevent another stroke
  • Hyperbaric oxygen therapy (treatment that involves allowing the baby to breathe pure oxygen in a pressurized chamber.)

Later on, the child can receive therapy to treat complications stemming from in utero stroke, such as:

  • Speech therapy
  • Occupational therapy
  • Physical therapy
  • Behavioral therapy

Depending on the medical conditions they develop, a child may also need assistive devices, seizure medication, and treatment for vision or hearing impairments. 

If your child has cerebral palsy or another condition caused by fetal stroke, you know how costly treatment can be. If your child’s condition was the direct result of a doctor’s mismanagement of a stroke, you may be able to sue for treatment costs. Visit our legal help page to learn more.