Common Birth Injuries and Medical Malpractice

The terms "birth injury" and "birth trauma" ordinarily refer to injuries to a baby that result from complications during labor and delivery. Not all birth injuries arise from medical malpractice. Whatever the cause, birth injuries can result in serious distress and long-term complications for infants and their parents.


Common Birth Injuries

Birth injuries range from mild to severe, ranging from minor bruising to nerve or brain damage. Most birth injuries do not result from medical malpractice. A lawyer can assist you in evaluating a specific incident for the possibility of malpractice. Common injuries include:

Bruising and Forceps Marks

Sometimes a baby will have bruising on the face or head simply from passing though the birth canal, and from associated contact with the mother's pelvic bones and tissues. If forceps are used during delivery, they may leave temporary marks or bruises on the baby's head. Vacuum extraction can also cause bruising to the head, and may cause a scalp laceration. In extreme cases, forceps use can cause depressed skull fractures, which may require surgical elevation.

Subconjunctival Hemorrhage

This common birth injury results in bright red band around the iris of one or both of the baby's eyes. This does not cause damage to the eyes, and usually disappears completely within a week to ten days.

Caput Succedaneum

This is a severe swelling of the baby's scalp, and is more likely to occur as a result of vacuum extraction. The swelling will ordinarily disappear within a few days.

Cephalohematoma

This term refers to bleeding between a bone and its fibrous covering. With regard to childbirth, this type of injury is typically seen on the baby's head. A cephalohematoma will ordinarily resolve within two weeks to three months. If a cephalohematoma is particularly large, the baby may become jaundiced as the red blood cells break down.

Facial Paralysis

Pressure on the baby's face during labor or birth, or the use of forceps during childbirth, may cause injury to a baby's facial nerves. If a nerve is merely bruised, the paralysis will ordinarily clear up within a few weeks. With more severe nerve damage, it may be necessary to surgically repair the damaged facial nerves.

Brachial Palsy Injuries (Erb's Palsy and Klumpke's Palsy)

this condition occurs when the brachial plexus (the group of nerves that controls movement of the arms and hands) is injured. This injury most often results from "shoulder dystocia", a term which describes birth difficulties which result when the baby's shoulders impair its passage through the birth canal. When injury causes only bruising or swelling, the baby will ordinarily recover within three months. In more severe cases, there may be permanent nerve damage, and physical therapy and surgery may be required.

Fractured Bones

The most common bone fracture is to the clavicle (collar bone), usually during difficult births or breech delivery. In most cases, the baby recovers quickly once the bone is immobilized.

Brain Injury

Birth difficulties can result in oxygen deprivation to the baby as a result of blood loss, or the twisting or compression of the umbilical cord. Prolonged oxygen deprivation can cause brain damage, and may result in seizure disorders, cerebral palsy, or mental impairment.

Causes of Birth Injuries

Injuries to a baby are more likely during a difficult delivery. The difficulty of delivery is affected by such factors as:

  • The baby's size. When a baby weighs more than eight pounds, thirteen ounces (four kilograms), birth injury becomes more likely. Similarly, premature babies (those born before 37 weeks) are more susceptible to injury.

  • Cephalopelvic Disproportion - A fancy way of saying that the size and shape of the mother's pelvis is not adequate for the child to be born by vaginal delivery.

  • Difficult labor or childbirth ("Dystocia"), or prolonged labor.

  • The baby's position - a "breech birth", where the child's buttocks or legs are presented first, is more likely to result in birth injury.

If a mother experienced complications during a prior birth, doctors should be on alert for possible complications during any subsequent birth.

Medical Malpractice

Medical error can cause birth injuries, or can increase their severity or permanence. When a healthcare provider negligently causes injury to a patient, including a birth injury, the patient's claim for damages falls under the law of medical malpractice.

Medical errors which may support a malpractice action include:

  • Failing to anticipate birth complications with a larger baby, or in cases involving maternal health complications;

  • Failure to respond appropriately to bleeding;

  • Failing to observe or respond to umbilical cord entrapment;

  • Failure to respond to fetal distress (including irregularities in the fetal heartbeat);

  • Delay in ordering cesarean section (c-section) when medically necessary;

  • Misuse of forceps or a vacuum extractor during delivery;

  • Inappropriate administration of Pitocin, a synthesized hormone used to induce or augment (speed up) labor.

Additionally, injuries can result to a baby as a result of poor care delivered after the birth, including mistakes made during a circumcision, or failure to properly attend to an infection.

Proving Medical Malpractice

A medical malpractice case for a birth injury requires proof of the following elements:

  1. The healthcare provider had a professional relationship with the child;
  2. The healthcare provider violated the governing professional standard of care when providing services to the child;
  3. As a result of that violation of the standard of care, the child was injured; and
  4. The child suffered damages as a result of the injury.

Many birth injuries occur without a violation of the standard of care by the doctors and other professionals who provided services before birth and for the child's delivery. Unfortunately, some birth injuries occur despite the best of medical care. In birth injury cases it normally requires the evaluation of a case by a medical expert in order to determine if it can be proved that malpractice occurred.

Evaluation of a Birth Injury Malpractice Claim

In evaluating a possible malpractice claim, an attorney will ordinarily want to review all of the baby's medical records, including those associated with the child's birth and neonatal care, and may wish to also have them reviewed by a medical nurse or physician.

Compensation for Birth Injuries

In a medical malpractice action arising from a birth injury claim, damages sought on behalf of the child typically include the economic cost of the injury, including the cost of past and future medical care, the cost of medical equipment, and the cost of therapeutic and assistive services that the child will require in the future, as well as compensation for the child's pain and suffering.

When a baby suffers a birth injury, the baby's parents may benefit from consulting a medical malpractice lawyer who focuses on birth injury cases.

Copyright © 2005 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was last reviewed or amended on May 8, 2018.