Brain Injury from Lack of Oxygen and Cerebral Palsy

Birth Injury, Causes of Cerebral Palsy

lineart illustration of flow from oxygen bottle being stopped before it can reach baby

When an infant sustains injury to the brain before or during birth, cerebral palsy may result. Learn about the relationship between a brain injury and cerebral palsy and how cerebral palsy from a brain injury could occur.

Brain Injuries Caused by Lack of Oxygen

Out of every 1,000 babies delivered full term, three of them develop neonatal encephalopathy, a broad term for disease in the brain, characterized by an impaired level of consciousness, seizures, breathing difficulties, and poor reflexes. This condition often occurs because of the baby’s lack of oxygen during pregnancy or birth.

Brain injuries that stem from a lack of oxygen to the brain can result from:

  • Abnormal delivery where the baby does not enter the birth canal headfirst during labor
  • Excessive maternal bleeding during delivery or while pregnant
  • Prolonged delivery where the baby’s head is too large to pass through the birth canal, a condition known as cephalopelvic disproportion
  • Problems with the placenta that impair the transfer of oxygen to the baby
  • Umbilical cord compression, occlusion, or knots that disrupt the blood supply to the baby

Types of brain injuries that may result from a lack of oxygen include:

  • Global cerebral ischemia, a condition that occurs when blood flow to the brain is stopped or reduced
  • Hypoxic-ischemic brain injury, a condition that occurs when an infant’s brain is deprived of oxygen and blood flow in the brain is decreased

How a Lack of Oxygen Causes Brain Injury

Asphyxiation, or oxygen deprivation, remains one of the leading causes of brain damage in infants. If the brain does not receive the proper levels of oxygen, neonatal encephalopathy and brain injury can occur. Asphyxiation may also lead to acidosis and increased carbon dioxide levels and other gases in the blood.

Hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy (HIE) is a form of neonatal encephalopathy due to inadequate blood flow or oxygen to the fetal brain. Hypoxic ischemic brain injuries are the result of insufficient oxygen and/or blood flow to the brain. HIE can contribute to physical and cognitive impairments or death in infants, as well as brain damage that can lead to a disability like cerebral palsy. The degree of the disability varies depending upon how much or how long the baby was deprived of oxygen and the extent of the resulting brain damage.

In some cases, signs of brain injury may not be present until well after birth. As a baby develops into a toddler and a child, developmental delays may be more noticeable, which can indicate that brain damage has occurred. A child may also exhibit symptoms like bodily fatigue, paralysis on one side of the body, sensitivity to light, and sleeping difficulties.

Birthing Complications That Can Result in a Lack of Oxygen and Infant Brain Injury

Many different birthing complications can result in oxygen deprivation in the brain, such as:

  • Umbilical cord compression, occlusion, or prolapse
  • Breech births
  • Placental insufficiency
  • Fetal heart rate abnormalities during labor
  • Forced delivery by means of forceps or vacuum extraction
  • Induced labor

In these cases, the delivery team must be vigilant for signs of a birth injury. When doctors suspect a brain injury, they may use cranial imaging or other diagnostic tests to identify the type of damage that has occurred, the cause of the injury, and any ongoing treatment.

Infant seizures are among some of the most common signs that a child has sustained a brain injury at birth. A lack of oxygen during delivery is a factor that may contribute to seizures in newborns. Medical professionals may not immediately detect infant seizures until they perform an EEG on the baby.

Additional signs that can indicate a baby has sustained a brain injury at birth include:

  • Abnormal limpness
  • Acidosis, or poor blood pH
  • Failure to breathe immediately after delivery
  • Need for resuscitation
  • Feeding difficulties
  • Hypotonia, or low muscle tone


In order to prevent brain injuries in newborns, doctors need to monitor the mother and baby for any signs of oxygen deprivation and take steps to correct the problem or deliver the baby before injury occurs. Fetal heart rate monitoring during labor is the standard method for identifying babies at risk for oxygen deprivation during labor.

In cases where a brain injury and brain damage are detected early, there is a treatment that can help. If a newborn experiences asphyxiation during delivery, doctors can administer a hypothermic treatment, which involves cooling the child’s body temperature. Neonatal hypothermia, or head cooling, may be able to prevent or minimize some of the consequences of asphyxia and brain damage trauma.

Do you believe that medical malpractice caused your child’s cerebral palsy? The Cerebral Palsy Family Lawyers at Janet, Janet & Suggs, LLC have helped over 30,000 families across the nation who believed the same. Contact us today for a free, no-obligation consultation.



Reviewed by:
Trish Fletcher, MS, BSN, CRNP, NNP-BC, ALNC
Neonatal Nurse Practitioner | Birth Injury Legal Nurse Consultant

Tricia is a dedicated, focused, Birth Injury Legal Nurse Consultant and Neonatal Nurse Practitioner with more than 25 years of experience. Her strong clinical and critical thinking skills, paired with expertise caring for neonates in a Level III Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), ensures meticulous medical records review. READ FULL BIO

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