Common Mistakes Leading to Brain Injury in Newborns

Causes of Cerebral Palsy, Cerebral Palsy Diagnosis, Prenatal Care and Childbirth

By Giles Manley, MD, JD
CPFN Medical Advisor

As an attorney with more than 20 years of obstetrical experience, I regularly sit down with parents and review situations in which medical error is the suspected cause of their child’s cerebral palsy. While each case is different, there are certain medical errors which come up most often.

Failure to Diagnose and Respond to a Baby’s Airway Obstructions

There are many different vision disorders that can result from cerebral palsy, although many share similar forms of corrective treatment.

Acuity Loss

This always occurs after the baby has been delivered. It is caused by a foreign plug in the airway, most commonly meconium, blood or mucous. When this occurs, your baby will not be crying.

Mismanagement of Third Trimester Bleeding

An example of this would be leaving a mother unmonitored and alone on a gurney waiting for a sonogram while she experiences severe enough bleeding to affect the baby’s, and also possibly her, wellbeing.

Waiting Too Long to Perform a C-Section

If nurses, doctors or midwives keep trying to deliver a baby vaginally when the fetal heart monitor shows the baby is in distress and not tolerating labor, the baby can suffer brain damage. We have had many cases where, if the child had been born only an hour or two earlier, the baby would not have been injured.

It is amazing that many times a medical records document acknowledges the distress, yet no actions to correct it were undertaken. Also, after a doctor determines a C-section is necessary, it should be performed immediately. The absolute longest acceptable delay is 30 minutes under guidelines governing obstetrical best practices.

Administering Too Much Pitocin

Pitocin is a drug used to induce labor, but it also carries the risk of undue stress upon the fetus (which will be clearly evident on the fetal monitor strips). My firm recently settled a case where Pitocin was continued long after it should have been stopped, and the baby was born with brain and organ damage.

Failure to Respond to Signs and Symptoms of a Uterine Rupture

These usually start with unexplained continuous severe pain experienced by mom, and are followed with obvious changes in the fetal monitor. Uterine rupture occurs almost exclusively in women who have had some sort of prior uterine surgery. It is a potentially catastrophic event for a mother and baby. Any delay in performing an emergency C-section can lead to infant brain damage and potential maternal death.

Misreading or Misinterpreting Fetal Monitor Tracings

Being able to correctly interpret fetal monitor strips is the most basic requirement of an obstetrician, midwife or obstetrical nurse. It is frightening how many of these healthcare providers lack this skill. In many of the cases I see, a correct interpretation of an electric fetal heart monitor (EFM) and the appropriate action in response could have avoided brain injury to a child.

I advise parents to learn the basics of EFM so they know enough to ask questions and demand answers if they notice certain EFM patterns happening during labor.

Failure to Respond to Signs of a Placental Abruption

Placental abruption, which includes any amount of placental separation before delivery, occurs in about 1 out of 150 deliveries, although severe cases are rarer. The classic symptom is unrelenting abdominal pain, with or without vaginal bleeding. If it is severe and late-term, steps must be taken to deliver the baby quickly before both the baby’s and mom’s lives are compromised.

Failure to Respond to Abnormal Symptoms/Behavior in a Newborn

Healthy newborns will always do three things—eat, drink and go to the bathroom. This is true even if they are sick with a cold. Any significant change in your baby’s habits as it relates to these three basic functions of life should be brought to the attention of a medical provider immediately.

Unfortunately, especially if early in a disease process, your complaints may be ignored. DO NOT let this intimidate you from seeking care again. If you have been discharged from an emergency room or your pediatrician’s office and there is no improvement in your baby in 12-24 hours, go back. Insist on testing and, if possible, hospital observation for 24 hours.

Failure to Perform a Timely Delivery

Miscommunication is a major factor in many medical errors, but it’s particularly devastating if it causes a baby who needs to be delivered NOW to suffer brain damage as a result. Ensure that all your healthcare providers are talking to one another. This can be done with simple questioning of your nurse. Examples include:

  • “Is my doctor aware of your concerns?”
  • “Did you tell my doctor about my concerns?”
  • “Is anesthesia aware of the concerns about the fetal monitor tracings?”

Failure to Obtain Medical Experts to Support Labor and Delivery

If a mother or baby shows signs that the labor and delivery process may be complicated—for example, a pre-existing condition such as maternal diabetes—the hospital should have the right staff and equipment ready and waiting if a difficult situation arises. Never be afraid to ask your primary provider to send you for an expert second opinion. Also, if your baby is at risk for premature birth, ensure that the hospital where you plan to deliver is capable of handling this situation.

If you experienced any of these errors during the birth of your child, contact us for a free consultation.


Giles H. Manley, M.D., J.D., F.A.C.O.G.

Giles is a board-certified OBGYN. He has over 20 years’ experience and delivered over 2,000 babies. He served as both Chief of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Area Medical Director in Baltimore for the Mid-Atlantic Permanente Medical Group (the physician group of Kaiser Permanente). He decided to become a lawyer to help keep birth errors from being repeated. A partner in Janet, Janet & Suggs, he focuses his legal practice on representing victims of medical malpractice and families affected by cerebral palsy.

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