What Can Happen If Your Baby Is Born Not Breathing?

Birth Injury

Babies that are born not breathing are at an increased risk of brain, heart, lung, and kidney damage, especially if the baby is unable to breathe for more than 10 minutes after birth. Birth asphyxia, or the lack of oxygen around the time of birth, can also result in the baby developing cerebral palsy. Several things can cause a baby not to be breathing at birth, including airway blockages, umbilical cord compression, and high or low blood pressure. Here we explore what birth asphyxia is, the causes and symptoms of this condition, what can happen if your baby is born not breathing, and how this condition is treated.

What Is Birth Asphyxia?

Birth asphyxia is when a baby is born not breathing and results from low blood supply and/or oxygen loss to the baby’s body. This condition is characterized by the newborn’s body being unable to produce regular respiration within the first minute of birth. Birth asphyxia is a serious condition and requires emergency treatment to get the baby to start breathing on their own. If the baby doesn’t start breathing on their own quickly enough, birth asphyxia could lead to hypoxia, or lowered oxygen supply to the tissues and brain, which may cause permanent brain damage and even death.

Causes and Symptoms of Birth Asphyxia

There are several causes of birth asphyxia, with the most common being:

  • Prenatal hypoxia, or when the baby experiences low oxygen supply in utero
  • Umbilical cord compression during birth
  • The mother receiving anesthesia during birth
  • Preterm delivery
  • Maternal age that is younger than 16 or older than 40 at the time of childbirth
  • Maternal illness such as anemia, diabetes, or hypertension
  • Poor or no prenatal care
  • Abnormal fetal position or presentation
  • Smoking or abusing alcohol while pregnant
  • Slowed fetal growth
  • The baby’s airways being blocked or unformed
  • Large infant size at birth that results in a prolonged delivery

Symptoms of birth asphyxia include:

  • Blue or gray skin color
  • Hypotonia/Hypertonia, or when the newborn’s limbs are either too loose or too stiff
  • Little or no response to stimulation
  • Slow heart rate
  • Weak reflexes
  • Little or no breathing
  • Seizures
  • Low levels of or no alertness

Babies who are born prematurely may not show many or any symptoms due to their immature nervous systems.

Diagnosis of Birth Asphyxia

Most newborns will begin breathing on their own without assistance after birth. If the baby does not start breathing independently within a minute of delivery, they will likely be diagnosed with birth asphyxia. Doctors may use the Apgar test to objectively diagnose this condition. To assess a baby’s Apgar score, the doctor will perform a thorough examination of the newborn’s heart action, muscle tone, respiration, reflexes, and skin color.

A healthy Apgar score is between seven and ten. Scores between four and six indicate moderate problems with a baby’s vital signs, while scores between zero and three mean the baby has severe depression of vital signs as a result of birth asphyxia.

Treatment of Birth Asphyxia

If your newborn is diagnosed with birth asphyxia, your doctor will likely take immediate action to treat it and get your baby breathing again. Common treatment options include:

  • Resuscitation, usually via the Neonatal Resuscitation Program procedure
  • Hypothermia to reduce the newborn’s body temperature for up to 72 hours
  • High-frequency ventilation to puff oxygen into the baby’s lungs
  • Nitric oxide via a breathing tube to lower blood pressure and open the lungs’ blood vessels
  • Medication to support the infant’s breathing and maintain healthy blood pressure levels
  • Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO) to provide temporary life support and get rid of excess carbon dioxide in the baby’s body

What Can Happen if Your Baby Is Not Breathing at Birth?

The implications of a baby being born not breathing vary widely and depend on how long the infant goes without breathing. If a baby is born not breathing for five minutes or less, the physician can usually prevent or reduce the potential for brain damage. Babies who are unable to breathe for more than 10 minutes are at significant risk of kidney, heart, brain, or lung damage, and even death.

Infants who experience moderate to severe brain damage due to birth asphyxia are at risk for medical conditions such as:

  • Learning disabilities
  • Seizures
  • Breathing problems
  • Behavioral issues
  • Cognitive dysfunction
  • Cerebral palsy

Birth Asphyxia and Cerebral Palsy

Babies who are born not breathing are at an increased risk of developing neurological complications like cerebral palsy. The longer a baby goes without breathing after birth, the higher their risk grows.

Unfortunately, some birth asphyxia cases that result in cerebral palsy could have been prevented with prompt and proper medical care. If you believe your child’s cerebral palsy is the result of medical negligence, you may have a case and be eligible to recover the compensation your family deserves. Learn more about your options and how we can help by contacting Janet, Janet & Suggs, LLC today.



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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