When most people hear the word asphyxia, their thoughts turn to suffocation or strangulation. Few people realize that asphyxiation can occur during the birthing process, often causing lifelong complications for the child.
What is Birth Asphyxia?
The term “birth asphyxia” refers to a loss or reduction in the oxygen and blood supply to a fetus before, during or immediately after birth. The term anoxia describes a condition when there is complete deprivation of oxygen. Asphyxia or anoxia can occur as a result of a variety of delivery complications. Compression, occlusion or restriction of the umbilical cord during birth is the most common cause of asphyxia. When oxygen flow to an unborn baby is compromised, there is a high risk of brain injury, cerebral palsy, or death if action is not taken immediately.
How Asphyxia Causes Brain Damage
When the brain is deprived of oxygen, pH and blood gas levels may be altered, putting the infant at risk for brain damaging cerebral hypoxia and acidosis. Asphyxiation may lead to increased carbon dioxide and other gases in the blood, as well as an imbalance of the umbilical venous blood’s pH. This event may trigger decreased pH and lead to fetal acidosis and brain damage.
Birthing Complications that can Result in Asphyxia and Infant Brain Damage
Birthing complications and maternal and neonatal factors can put an infant at risk for asphyxia. Risk factors include:
- Cord prolapse – occurs when the umbilical cord precedes the fetus when the fetus moves downward into the pelvis. This condition demands immediate attention and action, normally resulting in a
- Caesarian section.
- Induced labor
- Breech deliveries
- Forced extraction by means of forceps, vacuum, or the usage of mechanical forces during vaginal deliveries.
- Low umbilical cord pH
- Umbilical cord wrapped around the neck – although relatively common, this condition could put a fetus at severe risk during the delivery process.
Fetal heart monitoring can help detect asphyxia and fetal distress, but only if used and monitored properly. Providing the mother with supplemental oxygen during delivery can help prevent fetal acidosis and brain injury. Quick, efficient labor minimizes the baby’s stress factors and goes a long way to preventing birth asphyxia.
Health care professionals may not recognize the signs of distress in time or at all. In other cases, the results may be misinterpreted as negative and the mother unnecessarily sent for forced extraction or Cesarean section delivery.
When used properly, fetal heart monitoring is responsible for saving many infants from high-risk situations and neurological damage during the birthing process. Doctors are studying new approaches to labor and delivery which can minimize the consequences of asphyxia and birthing traumas that are sometimes unavoidable.
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