What Causes Lack of Oxygen at Birth and What Are the Long-Term Effects?

Causes of Cerebral Palsy

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Birth asphyxia happens when a baby’s organs and brain aren’t receiving enough oxygen. Without adequate amounts of oxygen, cells throughout the body quickly start to malfunction. This can result in cells dying or sustaining permanent damage. Babies may suffer a range of injury types depending on how much, or how little, oxygen they receive.

The severity of the oxygen deprivation is described as either perinatal hypoxia or perinatal anoxia. Perinatal hypoxia is when the baby doesn’t get enough oxygen to the body and brain. Perinatal anoxia is when the baby receives no oxygen for a period of time. Each of these conditions may result in a severe brain injury known as hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy, or HIE.

What Causes of Lack of Oxygen at Birth

Several factors may result in a baby having a lack of oxygen at birth, including a combination of unfortunate circumstances. The most common factors resulting in oxygen deprivation include:

  • Abnormal presentation or when a baby doesn’t enter the birth canal headfirst.
  • A delivery that involves shoulder dystocia, a dire situation where one or both of the baby’s shoulders impede the delivery.
  • Excessive bleeding, or hemorrhaging, during pregnancy or delivery.
  • Maternal shock, a complication of fetal distress and heavy bleeding that may lead to placental abruption.
  • A traumatic or prolonged delivery due to a baby’s head being too big to travel through the birth canal. This is also known as cephalopelvic disproportion.
  • Problems with the umbilical cord, like a prolapsed cord, can possibly cut off the baby’s oxygen supply during labor.
  • Problems with the placenta.

Many factors contributing to oxygen deprivation at birth are out of the control of gynecologists, midwives, obstetricians, and healthcare providers. However, labor and delivery professionals receive specialized training to properly manage labor and delivery, including how to recognize problems. Failing to identify potential issues and provide solutions may result in severe damage to a baby’s brain and body.

Lack of Oxygen at Birth: Signs and Symptoms to Look For

There are numerous warning signs of birth asphyxia that may become apparent during and after the delivery, including:

  • Abnormal skin color (gray, pale, or blue)
  • Abnormal, weak, or complete absence of breathing
  • Acidosis or excess acid in baby’s blood
  • Lethargy or infant fatigue
  • Low heart rate
  • Poor muscle tone
  • Problems with blood clotting
  • Seizures
  • Signs of inadequate blood circulation
  • Stool or meconium in the amniotic fluid
  • Urinary problems including baby having difficulty urinating or not urinating
  • Weak reflexes

Careful monitoring and skilled treatment are crucial to minimizing the chances of brain damage and developmental delays caused by a lack of oxygen at birth.

Cerebral Palsy

Cerebral palsy describes a group of disorders affecting an individual’s ability to maintain posture, balance and easily move. Cerebral palsy can be a result of atypical brain development or brain injury occurring during birth or the early stages of life. In some babies, symptoms can be seen right away after delivery. For others, the diagnosis comes later in infancy or even as they enter the toddler stage.

Pediatric neurologists diagnose cerebral palsy using a series of neurological tests. If a child is found to have CP, the neurologist will order additional testing to determine what effect the disorder is having on the child’s developmental process to determine the severity and type of cerebral palsy the child has.

Cerebral palsy caused by oxygen deprivation before delivery is frequently accompanied by developmental delays, learning disabilities, speech impairments, and seizure disorders.

Each of these conditions can require specialized, long-term care, including home modifications, specialized educational methods, behavioral therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy, and medication. These requirements can be emotionally and financially taxing for the entire family.

If you believe your child’s cerebral palsy may be the result of medical negligence or error, you can contact the Cerebral Palsy Family Lawyers at Janet, Janet & Suggs, LLC to see if you have a case. Our dedicated team, with their legal and medical expertise, can assist you in finding answers and help you seek compensation if you have a legal case.



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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