A Parent’s Guide to Birth Asphyxia and Cerebral Palsy

Birth Injury, Causes of Cerebral Palsy, Cerebral Palsy Diagnosis

newborn with exaggerated blue cast to skin

If your baby suffered asphyxia during birth that resulted in a brain injury, you are likely seeking answers about why and how the injury happened, if it could have been prevented, and what your child’s future looks like. Below we answer some of the most common questions parents have, including those about birth asphyxia and cerebral palsy.

What Is Asphyxia During Birth?

Birth asphyxia, also known as intrauterine hypoxia or birth hypoxia, is a condition characterized by a lack of oxygen to an infant during birth. When the baby’s body is lacking oxygen, the cells can’t work properly. This means asphyxia during birth can result in brain damage or, in some cases, death. This type of brain damage is referred to as hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy, or HIE.

Babies suffering from HIE can end up with disabilities or other life-altering impairments including hearing and vision loss, cognitive deficits, and cerebral palsy (CP). Even if brain damage isn’t detected, children experiencing asphyxia during birth have an increased risk for language delays, learning disabilities and other issues throughout their life.

What Causes Birth Asphyxia?

The causes of asphyxia during birth typically fall under one of three general categories: medical conditions of the mother, complications during childbirth, or failure by medical staff to properly monitor fetal heart rate. Some causes of reduced oxygen levels before, during, and after birth include:

  • The baby is in the breech position or other abnormal birth presentations that make delivery more complicated
  • Fetal distress or serious maternal bleeding that may lead to maternal shock
  • Infant’s airways are blocked or unformed
  • Larger size baby or a large head that might prolong the delivery
  • Placental issues, such as placental abruption and placenta previa
  • The infant, mother, or both experiencing low or high blood pressure
  • Umbilical cord issues, including the cord wrapping the baby’s head, a compressed or restricted cord, and similar problems

What Are the Symptoms of Asphyxia During Birth

There are several symptoms medical professionals look for when diagnosing asphyxia during birth, including:

  • Hypotonia (infant’s body is limp and floppy)
  • Infant having seizures
  • Low alertness level
  • Decreased heart rate
  • Meconium (infant’s first stool) in amniotic fluid
  • Pale or blue skin color
  • Poor muscle tone
  • The infant has difficulty breathing or is not breathing at all
  • Weakened reflexes

The nervous system of a premature baby is less mature than a full-term baby and may not display all the symptoms above, or any at all.

How Is Asphyxia During Birth Detected?

When making a diagnosis of asphyxia during birth, doctors and other medical professionals will use an Apgar Score, which is a scale from 0-10, to rate the infant’s health. This allows them to assess the infant’s breathing, muscle tone, reflexes, skin color, and heart rate. A significantly lower Apgar Score of 0-3 may be a sign of asphyxia during birth.

Can the Severity of Brain Injury from Birth Asphyxia Be Reduced?

Appropriate treatment for birth asphyxia depends on the seriousness of the condition and the baby’s vital signs. Most importantly, medical professionals need to take immediate steps in addressing why the asphyxia is happening and restoring normal blood supply to the body.

Breathing support is the most common treatment for mild asphyxia and is typically continued until the baby can breathe on their own. Over time, most babies fully recover from mild asphyxia, although they should continue to be monitored over time for complications by doctors.

Infants suffering from severe acute asphyxia during birth may benefit from neonatal therapeutic hypothermia, a type of body cooling that aims to reduce or eliminate the negative effects of birth asphyxia by decreasing the infant’s temperature for up to 72 hours. This technique, known as hypothermia treatment, involves placing the baby on a waterproof blanket containing cool circulating water. This can decrease the baby’s temperature to as low as 91.4 degrees Fahrenheit. The infant’s temperature is allowed to return to normal after three days of treatment.

However, this treatment needs to be initiated very shortly after birth in order to be effective. If medical professionals fail to initiate it promptly or fail to transfer the infant to a hospital able to provide this therapy, it may be considered malpractice.

Other appropriate treatment options for more extensive cases of asphyxia during birth include:

  • Breathing support including nitric oxide and/or specially designed breathing machinery or apparatus
  • Dialysis
  • Intravenous nutrition and fluids supply
  • Life support, including heart-lung pump or heart pump
  • Medications, including anti-seizure drugs or blood pressure medicine

What Happens if My Child Is Diagnosed With HIE?

Asphyxia during birth can result in lifelong disabilities, including cerebral palsy, that require the financial resources for significant care, including various treatments and therapies. If your child has HIE, you may have a legitimate malpractice case against medical providers if your child’s brain injury was due to medical negligence. The Cerebral Palsy Family Lawyers at Janet, Janet & Suggs, LLC can review your case for free and help you decide how best to move forward. Contact our legal/medical team today to learn more.



Claire Surles, RN
Reviewed by:
Claire Surles, RN
Registered Nurse

Claire comes to JJS after a 10-year career as a labor and delivery nurse. She dedicated her hospital efforts to advocating for families, providing the safest birthing environment possible as Newborn Admission Nurse at UMMC St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson, Maryland. Her passion for helping those who experienced losses at any stage of gestation led to her appointment as Coordinator of the hospital’s ROOTS perinatal loss program. READ FULL BIO

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