Among babies that are 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 as well. Brain damage is a serious health concern, and even when it is mild, it can lead to lifelong consequences for the child and parents.
A child born with brain damage may show a number of symptoms, most of which are 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, many of these children will be living with the consequences of early brain damage for the rest of their lives. If your child is facing this, it may be helpful to review the events that occured around the time of delivery to determine if there is evidence for a lawsuit that could potentially provide compensation for your family.
Asphyxiation During Birth
About half of all causes of brain damage in infants are from asphyxiation, or lack of oxygen, around the time of birth. 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. It can be caused by the mother having too little oxygen in her blood, by the placenta separating early, or by complications with the umbilical cord during birth. Asphyxiation may also occur because of infections in the baby or the mother, a blocked or malformed airway, anemia, or high or low blood pressure in the mother. 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 this condition 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
Severe jaundice that goes untreated 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. This 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. This 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 is critical that brain damage in an infant is recognized as early as possible so that treatments can be given in the hopes of reversing the effects as much as possible. Unfortunately, the signs are not always visible. 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 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 too many 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, there are some treatments that can help. For example, if a newborn has experienced asphyxiation during delivery, hypothermic treatment can be started in which the body temperature is cooled for about 72 hours. This is more of a preventative strategy as it can mitigate some of the brain damage that asphyxiation 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 help children with paralysis or movement disorders, like cerebral palsy.
Only in the most extreme cases of severe and profound damage to the brain is surgery 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.
For mild cases of brain damage at birth, the prognosis is positive. Fortunately, most cases are mild, and children will 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. Serious 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.