Even when birth asphyxia is because of the baby or pregnant person’s own condition, a doctor has a responsibility to detect and treat it immediately
Birth asphyxia (also called perinatal asphyxia or neonatal asphyxia) is when a newborn is deprived of oxygen during the birth process in a way that causes physical harm, usually to the brain.
Birth asphyxia could happen before, during, or immediately after birth.
If your baby has medical problems, it might be important to know if they’re related to birth asphyxia. For one thing, knowing the cause of a condition can be the key to successful treatment. The other reason is that there are some instances when birth asphyxia is the result of medical malpractice. If your baby is a victim of medical malpractice, there is help available.
Here’s what you need to know.
Symptoms of birth asphyxia
There are a few indicators that a baby might have suffered asphyxia or lack of oxygen. These symptoms include:
- Severe acid levels or a pH of less than 7.00 in the arterial blood of the umbilical cord.
- An Apgar Score of 0-3 at 1 minute and 5 minutes.
- Neurological problems like seizures, coma, or poor muscle tone.
- Respiratory distress, low blood pressure, or other signs of low blood flow to organs like the kidneys or intestines.
- Problems with the circulatory or digestive systems.
Before delivery, the baby could have symptoms that include an abnormal heart rate or rhythm, or increased acid in their blood.
At birth, signs of asphyxia could be that the baby’s skin is bluish or pale, they have a low heart rate, their muscle tone and reflexes are weak, they have a weak cry or are gasping or having trouble breathing. There could be meconium (the baby’s stool) in the amniotic fluid, which can interfere with breathing or block the baby’s airways if ingested.
Causes of birth asphyxia
Before or during birth, there are several factors that might cause or increase the risk of birth asphyxia. These include:
- If the pregnant person has low blood pressure
- Poor placenta function because of high blood pressure or a pregnancy that is more than 42 weeks gestation
- The pregnant person has inadequate oxygen in the blood because of heart or respiratory problems or lowered respiration because of anesthesia
- Inadequate relaxation of the uterus that prevents oxygen from circulating to the placenta
- Placental abruption, which is when the placenta separates from the uterus too early
- Compression of the umbilical cord that causes decreased blood flow
Often, birth asphyxia isn’t caused by medical malpractice. Most of these situations that result in birth asphyxia are naturally occurring and are not the fault of the pregnant person or the doctor — in other words, they couldn’t have been avoided.
However, a doctor or hospital staff can become liable (responsible for the birth injury) if they failed to detect the warning signs of birth asphyxia or they did not respond quickly enough. Lengthy birth asphyxia can result in severe brain damage, paralysis, cerebral palsy, or death.
The primary way that a doctor can prevent injury from asphyxia is by performing a Cesarean section (C-section). Most hospitals have the capability and equipment to perform a C-section within 30 minutes, but a baby with asphyxia would need to be delivered much sooner than that in order to prevent brain injury.
How does a doctor detect birth asphyxia?
A reasonable doctor should:
- Monitor acid levels
- Measure the Apgar score immediately after birth
- Monitor fetal heart rate
- Look for neurological problems
Depending on the pregnant person’s medical history and information gathered during prenatal testing and observation, there could be other risk factors individual to the specific case. Any doctor, nurse, or other medical personnel involved in the delivery should be aware of documented medical history and respond to any issues that might increase the risk of birth asphyxia.
When is birth asphyxia the result of medical malpractice?
Medical malpractice lawsuits are part of personal injury law. Medical negligence is when the doctor or hospital’s action or failure to act resulted in your baby’s injury.
Medical Standard of Care
A healthcare provider must give a patient the appropriate level of care under the circumstances. This usually means that the doctor must be reasonably competent and act in the same or similar way to an “average” practitioner in that community within the same or similar circumstances.
For example, if your doctor performs a certain treatment or delivers a birth in a particular way, it should be similar to how a doctor of comparable skill and experience in your community would perform the procedure.
A doctor sometimes must take a calculated risk in a dangerous situation. This is often a judgment call, and it’s based on their experience, the patient’s historic and current medical conditions, and the likelihood of a positive (or negative) outcome. Often, these decisions must be made in a split second.
If the potential benefits outweigh the risks in a situation where the baby or parent is in distress, and an injury still happens, it would likely not be malpractice — as long as the doctor acted in a way that was reasonable based on their skill and the community standard.
There are times when birth asphyxia can happen and it’s not the physician’s fault. In other words, the doctor wasn’t negligent. If that’s the case, then it’s not malpractice and you wouldn’t have a successful lawsuit.
Proving malpractice for birth asphyxia
If your baby suffered injuries as a result of birth asphyxia — from a lack of oxygen before, during, or immediately following birth — you need to consult a medical malpractice or birth injury lawyer.
Your lawyer will look for 2 major elements in order to determine if you can file a medical malpractice claim:
- The healthcare provider failed to exercise the degree of care and skill expected of a reasonable provider in the situation, and
- The failure was the direct cause of your baby’s injury.
If you believe that both of these conditions have been met, your first step should be to obtain a second medical opinion. Visit a doctor (an obstetrician or pediatrician) who is unaffiliated with the doctor or hospital who delivered your baby. Get a documented diagnosis of your baby’s condition, including a prognosis and treatment plan. Ask the doctor whether they think it’s possible that your baby’s condition that resulted from the asphyxia could’ve been prevented, and how.
Second, consult with a birth injury lawyer near you. Medical malpractice is a highly specialized area of personal injury law, and birth injuries are an even more specific subset.
There are 2 important aspects to your case:
- Proving that malpractice caused your baby’s injury.
- Ensuring that a settlement or demand is the appropriate amount to cover your baby’s past and future expenses.
Your lawyer should understand that conditions resulting from birth asphyxia could result in lifelong disabilities. Your baby might need immediate treatment, along with additional costs related to care for special needs and education throughout their life. You don’t want to be shortchanged, and your attorney will need to work with medical and financial experts to make sure you’re getting what you need.
If your baby’s life is forever changed because of someone’s negligence, you (and your baby) deserve the best representation to get what you both need to move forward.