Legal Consequences of Oxygen Deprivation at Birth
Childbirth is a time where everyone marvels at a medical miracle. A baby is born with so many of the basic survival skills and instincts we take for granted every day. Newborns have basic movement of arms and legs and the ability to open their eyes and take in food.
Unfortunately, childbirth is a complicated process that is fraught with peril when things go wrong. The most critical problems involve oxygen deprivation. When a baby's brain does not receive enough oxygen, brain cells can die, causing devastating and lifelong conditions.
A number of difficulties during the birthing process can lead to lack of oxygen, including:
- Twisted or compressed umbilical cords — If the umbilical cord becomes twisted or compressed during labor, the baby can lose the flow of oxygen and go into distress.
- Umbilical cords around the baby's neck — Depending on the baby's movements and position in the birth canal, the umbilical cord may become wound around the neck, thus cutting off the oxygen supply.
Positioning of baby in birth canal — The baby's positioning may result in the baby becoming lodged or resting in the birth canal for too long. Medical staff must intervene immediately so that the baby will not lose oxygen.
Signs of Oxygen Deprivation
Oxygen deprivation may lead to speech problems, problems with mobility and coordination, as well as learning problems. These symptoms might not be readily apparent at birth, but may become noticeable as the child grows up. However, doctors may be able to detect signs of oxygen deprivation during birth through:
- Low APGAR (infant health) scores, based on a baby's color soon after delivery
- Seizures within the first 24-48 hours after delivery
- Difficulty feeding and inability to latch, suck or swallow milk
- Difficulties in waking baby from sleep
- Low cord pH indicating that there is too much acid in the umbilical cord caused by lack of oxygen
Low APGAR scores (between zero and six) could signal brain damage due to lack of oxygen, and have also been linked to cerebral palsy and epilepsy in newborns.
Autism and Oxygen Deprivation
Studies also suggest that a lack of oxygen at birth can lead to autism. Specifically, children with neonatal anemia, a condition that occurs when the body has deficiencies in oxygen-carrying red blood cells, could be eight times more likely to develop autism later in life. Further, children with meconium aspiration, which can occur when a fetus is not getting enough oxygen and inhales waste products inside the womb, were seven times more likely to later develop autism.
Other birth injury or trauma increased the autism risk by five times. Nevertheless, the studies showed how vulnerable a baby's brain can be, and that lasting effects can occur when a baby is deprived of oxygen. Children who suffer oxygen deprivation have to deal with lifelong consequences and will likely not have the chances and opportunities most children experience in life.
Did a Doctor Cause Your Infant's Oxygen Deprivation?
Doctors owe their patients (as well as the unborn fetus) a duty to use reasonable care in monitoring the baby throughout the pregnancy. They must use due care in conducting necessary tests, checking for signs of distress, and advising mothers as needed. Doctors and hospitals that breach this duty may be held liable.
Parents of children who develop cognitive issues due to oxygen deprivation can seek compensation for future medical care stemming from the child's condition, costs associated with additional care and therapy the child will need growing up, as well as punitive damages in egregious cases.
Parents who bring suit for medical negligence must prove that a child's condition (whether it is autism, cerebral palsy or another cognitive defect) is directly related to negligence in not relieving birth trauma, or negligence in failing to detect (or responding to) fetal distress prior to birth.
If you have questions about birth injury claims based on oxygen deprivation, contact an experienced personal injury attorney.