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Among babies born full-term in the U.S., 3 in 1,000 will suffer from some degree of brain damage. Being deprived of oxygen during birth, known as asphyxiation, is a leading cause of infant brain damage, although there are many other possible causes. Infant brain damage is a serious health concern, and even when it is mild, it can lead to lifelong consequences for the child.
About Infant Brain Damage
A child born with brain damage may show a number of symptoms related to delayed development or behavioral and cognitive challenges. Treatments and interventions can help, but they need to be implemented early for a child to recover as much function as possible.
Even with early treatment, some children live with the consequences of early brain damage for life. As a parent or caregiver, it’s helpful to review the events that occurred around the time of delivery to determine if there is evidence for a lawsuit that could potentially provide compensation for your family.
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What Causes Infant Brain Damage?
Several factors can lead to brain damage in a newborn or infant. Some occur in utero, while others happen during labor or shortly after delivery.
Asphyxiation During Birth
One of the main causes of brain damage in infants is from asphyxiation, or lack of oxygen, around the time of birth. And babies born prematurely are at increased risk of being deprived of oxygen.
The brain needs oxygen, and when levels are low, even for a short period, the result can be brain damage.
Asphyxia may be the result of several factors:
- Too little oxygen in the mother’s blood during birth
- Placental abruption
- Complications with the umbilical cord
- Infections in the baby or the mother
- A blocked or malformed airway
- Anemia in the mother
- Other maternal health issues
The lack of oxygen that results can lead to damage causing cerebral palsy, seizures, cognitive disability, and other associated conditions.
When a mother has an infection during pregnancy, it can affect her unborn child. Infections like herpes, rubella (German Measles), syphilis, cystitis, HIV, and others, especially when not properly treated, increase the risk of brain damage in the baby.
Infections can also increase the risk of premature birth, which is also associated with a greater possibility of damage to the brain.
Preeclampsia is a condition in which a pregnant mother has high blood pressure along with high levels of protein in her urine. Five to eight percent of pregnancies are affected by preeclampsia and can result in brain damage in the infant.
If preeclampsia develops into eclampsia, which is when it progresses to maternal seizures, it can have devastating consequences for the newborn, including brain damage, seizures, and even death.
Jaundice and Kernicterus
Untreated and severe jaundice can cause a type of brain damage in a newborn called kernicterus. Jaundice causes yellowing of the skin and eyes, which occurs when the liver fails to remove excess bilirubin in the baby’s blood.
Jaundice is treatable, but if it is ignored, it can lead to kernicterus, which in turn may cause cerebral palsy, vision and hearing loss, and cognitive disabilities.
Physical damage that occurs during delivery, including prolonged pressure on the skull from the mother’s pelvis or birth canal, or from medical instruments, may cause brain damage.
Physical damage results from either direct pressure on the brain, or indirectly from the resulting bleeding, fluid buildup, and swelling in the brain.
Symptoms of Brain Damage in Infants
It’s critical to recognize infant brain damage as early as possible so that treatments can start, in the hopes of reversing the effects as much as possible. Unfortunately, the signs are not always visible.
These are potential signs of infant brain damage:
- Some babies born with brain damage may have a particular appearance, such as a broad forehead, a small head, or unusual facial features.
- The baby may also have abnormal eye movements or seizures.
- Associated neurologic problems may be evident early on, including excessive crying, difficulty swallowing and feeding, fussiness, and difficulty sleeping.
- In some cases, the signs of brain damage may not be apparent until later. As a baby grows into a toddler and child, developmental delays may become more apparent, which can indicate brain damage has occurred.
- A child may also have symptoms like fatigue, sleeping difficulties, paralysis, or sensitivity to light.
- Problems with sensory input may also signify brain damage. These could include vision and hearing problems, disorientation, or increased sensitivity to pain.
In cases where damage to the brain is recognized early, treatments can help.
If a newborn has experienced asphyxiation during delivery, hypothermic treatment can be started in which the body temperature is cooled for about 72 hours.
Hypothermic treatment mitigates some of the brain damage that oxygen deprivation causes. This treatment has been shown to save lives and to reduce the more severe consequences of asphyxiation and brain damage.
In many cases, however, it is not readily apparent so soon after birth that an infant suffered from brain damage.
As the child grows, there will be delays in development or abnormal physical examination finding that help medical professionals diagnose the condition.
In these instances, a child will likely receive various types of treatments as he or she grows, each aimed at addressing a specific complication of brain damage.
For instance, educational interventions can help a child with cognitive disabilities.
Physical and occupational therapy helps children with paralysis or movement disorders like cerebral palsy. In the most extreme cases of severe and profound damage to the brain, surgery is considered a treatment option.
Surgical interventions may be needed to relieve pressure on the brain from bleeding or swelling or even to remove a part of the skull or brain tissue if it is severely damaged.
Can an Infant Recover from Brain Damage?
For mild cases of brain damage at birth, the prognosis is favorable. Fortunately, most cases are mild, and children recover well with minimal or no complications.
The recovery from mild brain damage is not necessarily rapid, though. It could take years of therapy and other interventions to help a child recover normal function.
The prognosis is worse in more severe cases of infant brain damage. Many of these children will live with the consequences for the rest of their lives.
Severe brain damage can lead to conditions like cerebral palsy, autism, epilepsy, and severe cognitive disability. Treatments and interventions are proven to help improve symptoms, but they cannot reverse all the damage.
If you gave birth to a child that suffered brain damage, you may be wondering if it could have been prevented. Many cases of infant brain damage were preventable, and someone made the wrong decision during labor and delivery.
If you want to explore this further and see what your options may be for a lawsuit, consult with an experienced lawyer.
- Brain injury in newborns could have many causes. (2014, May 14). World & Local Health, Disease & Science News in Sarasota, FL.
Retrieved from: https://health.heraldtribune.com/2014/05/13/brain-injury-newborns-many-causes/
- Hagberg, H., Edwards, A. D., & Groenendaal, F. (n.d.). Perinatal brain damage: The term infant. PubMed Central (PMC).
Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4915441/
- Causes and Risk Factors of Cerebral Palsy. (2019, September 23). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/cp/causes.html
- What are Jaundice and Kernicterus? (2019, December 3). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/jaundice/facts.html
- American Speech-Language-Hearing Association | ASHA. (n.d.). Pediatric Traumatic Brain Injury: Signs and Symptoms.
Retrieved from: https://www.asha.org/practice-portal/clinical-topics/pediatric-traumatic-brain-injury/#collapse_2
- Intervention for infants with brain injury: Results of a randomized controlled study. (n.d.). PubMed Central (PMC).
Retrieved from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17138264/