Health and Medicine

What happens when a baby is deprived of oxygen during birth?

While birth injuries are, thankfully, relatively rare in the UK, they do still affect thousands of babies each year and in some cases can have lifelong health consequences for the children affected.

One of the most common birth injuries in this country occurs when a baby is deprived of oxygen either shortly before, during or immediately after birth. Known as birth asphyxia, this can result in brain damage ranging from mild to severe.

Depending on the severity of the injury and how quickly the right treatment is given, birth asphyxia can have very a very serious impact on a child’s long-term health and wellbeing.

Causes of oxygen deprivation at birth

There are various reasons a baby might experience oxygen deprivation at birth, with some of the most common including:

  • Low blood pressure in the mother meaning not enough oxygenated blood is reaching the baby before or during the birth
  • Extended labour resulting in the baby spending too long in the birth canal, leading to compression of the umbilical cord and decreased blood flow
  • Premature separation of the placenta from the uterus, meaning the maternal blood supply is cut off before the baby can start breathing independently
  • Low oxygen levels in the mother’s blood due to respiratory issues

In many cases, these and other causes of birth asphyxia are caused or made worse by medical negligence on the part of the midwives, doctors and other medical staff handling the birth.

Examples of situations where medical negligence may be a factor in birth asphyxia include:

  • Failure to correctly monitor the mother’s blood pressure, meaning the risk of birth asphyxia and the opportunity to intervene is missed
  • Failure to opt for a Caesarean section or other appropriate medical intervention promptly during a difficult birth
  • Failure to diagnose or correctly manage an infection or issue such as anaemia in the mother during pregnancy and birth
  • Failure to promptly take appropriate action following birth asphyxia e.g. providing breathing support, medication and other treatment

How birth asphyxia affects a baby’s brain

When the supply of oxygen to a baby is severely reduced or cut off entirely, the most serious effect will normally be on their brain. Because brain cells rely on a steady supply of oxygen to survive, any significant interruption in that supply (even for as little as a few minutes) can quickly result in the death of brain cells. Because brain cells cannot be repaired or replaced, any damage caused in this way will be permanent.

Even when the oxygen supply is re-established, secondary damage often then occurs as toxins are released from the damaged brain cells, which can then affect other healthy brain cells in the surrounding area.

How severe the damage is will depend on how long the oxygen is cut off for and how quickly appropriate medical treatment is provided.

Long-term health consequences of birth asphyxia

Babies who only suffer mild or moderate birth asphyxia can often make a full recovery if the right treatment is given quickly and appropriate follow-up care is provided.

However, where the brain damage is more serious, it is possible that the child will be left with lifelong consequences, requiring ongoing care and support.

Common health conditions associated with birth asphyxia include:

  • Cerebral palsy
  • Learning difficulties
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Impaired vision or complete blindness
  • Epilepsy/seizures
  • Physical disability
  • Mental health issues

Some of these conditions, such as cerebral palsy, are usually not immediately obvious and it may be months or even years before the effects of the brain damage are clear. The child will then likely need a range of treatments and support, potentially including surgery, medication, physiotherapy, speech therapy and occupational therapy.

Making sure your child has the support they need following birth asphyxia

If your child is dealing with long-term health consequences as a result of birth asphyxia, claiming compensation can be essential to ensure they are able to get all the help and support they need to give them the best quality of life.

Compensation for birth injuries like birth asphyxia can be used for a range of things, including paying for private medical treatment, medication, specialist equipment and various types of therapy.

You will normally have until your child turns 18 to start a claim and they will then have a further 3 years to bring a claim themselves, making the final deadline their 21st birthday. However, your chances of success are usually higher the sooner you can start building your case. It is therefore worth speaking to a specialist medical.