What Is an Anoxic Birth Injury?

Birth Injury

illustration of nurse caring for baby in NICU with huge oxygen warning flashing in background

Birth injuries shouldn’t be taken lightly. They can be severe enough to result in conditions including paralysis and cerebral palsy. Hypoxic or anoxic brain injury at birth—when the brain doesn’t receive enough, or any, oxygen—is one such condition.

What’s Anoxia?

Anoxia is the lack of oxygen. Medically speaking, anoxia describes a lack of oxygen; specifically when muscle groups, blood, or organs do not receive sufficient oxygen. Anoxic brain injury at birth occurs when the brain is totally deprived of oxygen during labor and delivery. This is a serious condition, often resulting in permanent brain damage.

What’s Hypoxia?

While anoxia describes a lack of oxygen, hypoxia describes a decrease in oxygen levels. In babies, hypoxia may be a result of preterm labor and delivery since their lungs aren’t fully developed enough for them to breathe on their own. Hypoxia can also result in brain injury. When the brain of a baby receives decreased levels of oxygen, they can potentially develop hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy, or HIE.

How Does an Anoxic Brain Injury at Birth Happen?

Anoxia is a relatively common danger of childbirth. During the delivery process, the umbilical cord may become twisted or pinched, causing a baby to cease breathing. How long a baby stops breathing will determine the depreciated level of oxygen. This means if a baby only stops breathing for a minute or so, it may result in hypoxia, a low oxygen level. If a baby stops breathing for a longer period, anoxia is more likely.

A less common danger of an anoxic brain injury during childbirth comes from a prolapsed umbilical cord. This occurs if the umbilical cord comes out of the mother’s cervix before the baby does, also limiting the baby’s breathing. In this case, a doctor may have to perform an emergency C-section.

Can Anything Be Done if a Baby is Anoxic?

In the past, there wasn’t anything that could prevent an anoxic brain injury at birth. However, hyperbaric oxygen therapy is an experimental treatment that may be able to help.

If a baby has been without oxygen for less than five minutes, a doctor may use a hyperbaric oxygen chamber where a baby is placed in an environment with 100% oxygen. This can reduce, and in some cases, completely prevent anoxic brain injury by flooding the blood and muscles with oxygen. This restores the body’s oxygen levels to proper levels and delivers oxygen to the baby’s brain before seizing.

What Is the Danger of Anoxia?

The danger of oxygen deprivation to the brain isn’t merely a matter of whether the baby is getting oxygen. Hypoxia and anoxia can both result in brain damage. If the brain is deprived of oxygen for a specific amount of time, it will respond by increasing blood flow to try to restore its oxygen supply. If this happens, the brain can start to malfunction. This can sometimes cause seizures due to electric signals being overloaded.

What Tests Confirm Anoxic Brain Injury?

There are several tests that can confirm a hypoxic or anoxic brain injury at birth. These tests include an Electroencephalogram (EEG) and/or a head computerized tomography (CT) scan and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). More comprehensive tests like a single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) scan can review areas of the brain for metabolism and blood flow. This can potentially lead to other tests to evaluate the sensory, visual, and auditory pathways.

Caring For a Baby with an Anoxic Brain Injury

When a baby stops breathing during the delivery, they may potentially develop a hypoxic or anoxic brain injury. Immediate testing is an essential first step so the baby can be properly diagnosed. From there, parents must be diligent in making sure the care of their child follows specialist recommendations. If a baby doesn’t show signs of a hypoxic or anoxic brain injury at birth, parents must continue to observe their baby so they can watch for other symptoms of a brain injury that may develop later.

What Are the Symptoms of an Anoxic Brain Injury?

Occasionally, a test doesn’t recognize a baby has a hypoxic or anoxic brain injury. Other times, a baby may have stopped breathing for several minutes, but tests weren’t performed. In both cases, parents and caregivers need to watch for symptoms, including jerky or spastic motions, weakened limbs, or a decline in executive functions.

The most serious symptom to watch for is a lack of consciousness that may look like they are sleeping but can’t be woken up. If any of these symptoms are left untreated, they may get worse and result in further brain damage.

If you believe your child’s anoxic brain injury at birth was caused by negligence or medical error, you may have a case for compensation. The dedicated team of Cerebral Palsy Family Lawyers at Janet, Janet & Suggs, LLC can assist you in finding answers and fighting for the compensation your child and family deserve. Contact us today with any questions.



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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