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Birth Injury

What Are the Risk Factors for Birth Injuries?

September 16, 2022

The existence of risk factors for birth injuries can usually be identified during pregnancy, labor, and delivery when proper medical evaluations are administered. Generally, medical professionals will consider certain factors that cannot be controlled, like the size of the mom and baby, maternal age, presentation in the uterus, the number of previous pregnancies, and the number of babies in the womb when evaluating the risk. Other uncontrollable risk factors might include the general health of the mother and gestational age.

In many cases, the actions, or inaction, of the health care team also increase the risk of mom and/or baby suffering a birth injury. The use of Pitocin to induce labor, for instance, can increase the chances of a birth injury happening. Administering pain medications through an epidural may also increase the risk of injury to the mother and child. 

What Is a Birth Injury?

A birth injury is any type of injury that an infant suffers before, during, or directly after childbirth. Birth injuries are different from birth defects, in that birth defects are inherited abnormalities. They are not caused by birth trauma.

Many infants suffer minor injuries during delivery that don’t require treatment. Instead, they heal on their own within several days or weeks. However, some birth injuries lead to complications that cause severe health problems, life-long disabilities, and even death for the infant and/or the mother.

In the United States, 6 to 8 out of every 1000 infants are born with some type of birth injury. Birth injuries often happen because of maternal or infant bacterial or viral infections that go unaddressed, premature or delayed birth, unidentified or untreated fetal distress, and complications during natural or Cesarean section (C-section) childbirth. In some cases, however, inadequate prenatal care is the culprit.

Common risk factors for birth injuries include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Premature birth (before 37 weeks of pregnancy)
  • Prolonged labor or childbirth
  • Abnormal presentation like breech birth
  • Maternal complications during birth
  • Birth weight over 8 pounds
  • Maternal obesity

Oxygen Deprivation (Hypoxia)

Before, during, and after delivery, infants require a steady flow of oxygen. If it isn’t provided, the infant can suffer from brain death in as little as six minutes. Common causes of oxygen deprivation include placental tears, uterine ruptures, internal infections, and umbilical cords wrapped around the infant’s neck.

If the infant is stuck inside the birth canal for too long, or has a blockage of umbilical blood flow, the infant’s oxygen reserves can run out, leading to a buildup of carbon dioxide in the blood, tissues, and organs. Oxygen deprivation is a common cause of Cerebral palsy, hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy (HIE), perinatal asphyxia, and other types of brain damage.

Physical Trauma

Birth trauma injuries can also occur when a doctor or medical provider uses too much mechanical force during delivery. Examples of physical trauma include: cuts and bruises; swelling, bleeding or bursting blood vessels, fractured or broken bones, and damaged nerves. Some types of nerve damage never heal and lead to lifelong complications.

The risk for birth injuries increases with the use of forceps and vacuum extractors used to reposition the infant or force the infant through the birth canal. The risks of injuries associated with these delivery instruments can often be prevented by performing a C-section delivery.

Top 5 Risk Factors for Birth Injuries

There are many risk factors for birth injuries. The top 5 preventable and non-preventable fetal risk factors include:

The Size of the Mom and the Baby

The size of the mother and the baby are common risk factors for birth injuries, especially during a vaginal delivery, where the baby must squeeze and twist through the mother’s narrow birth canal while getting pushed from behind by uterine contractions.

Some babies grow abnormally large during pregnancy. If the baby exceeds nine pounds, a vaginal delivery may not be recommended because the risk for birth injuries is increased. One of the most common injuries is shoulder dystocia, a complication where the baby’s head comes down, but its shoulder gets snagged behind the pelvic bone of the mother. This is a dangerous situation in labor because the baby is already partly delivered, so a C-section can’t be performed.

Maternal Infections

Maternal infections also raise the risk for birth injuries, they play a significant role. Mothers who have various types of infections either before or during delivery have a much higher rate of birth injuries.

There are a number of reasons that maternal infections are directly linked to birth injuries. An untreated maternal infection during pregnancy can have a negative effect on the fetal and placental membranes. The infection can disrupt the fetal oxygen supply, which can injure the baby’s developing brain and result in major birth injuries such as cerebral palsy. Infections can complicate the labor and delivery process by triggering maternal fever and interfering with fetal oxygen supply.

Abnormal Presentation

Abnormal presentation refers to babies that have not maneuvered into the normal head-first position before labor and delivery. Face-first positions and breech positions often lead doctors to use obstetrical tools like forceps and vacuum extractors. Using these tools raises the risk for physical trauma. Additionally, if the umbilical cord is abnormally positioned or wrapped around the baby’s neck, the baby may suffer oxygen deprivation, which can lead to brain damage. Abnormal presentation often results in a C-section to protect the baby from suffering more serious birth injuries.

Prolonged Labor

Prolonged labor also increases the risk for birth injuries because it puts additional stress on the mother and the fetus. Additionally, it’s a medical concern if the baby remains in the birth canal for more than 18 hours. This creates pressure on the baby’s brain, which can lead to birth injuries and brain injuries. According to most medical standards, any labor that lasts more than 18 hours should require an emergency C-section.


Preeclampsia is a common condition that occurs towards the end of some pregnancies when the mother suddenly develops hypertension (high blood pressure), and/or it rapidly gets worse. A significant risk factor for birth injuries, preeclampsia often leads to oxygen deprivation and brain damage. The condition is usually triggered by abnormalities in the placenta during pregnancy. It is diagnosed in about nine to 10% of all pregnancies and usually requires immediate intervention and/or early delivery of the baby.

Who Is Liable for Birth Injuries When Risk Factors Are Ignored?

Birth injuries can cause a variety of severe health problems, disabilities, and even death to an infant. While some birth injuries occur from natural complications, others occur from medical errors and procedures during labor and delivery. When risk factors for birth injuries are ignored, who should be held responsible after a birth injury?

If birth injuries occur, hospitals, doctors, nurses, and a variety of other people can be held liable if the birth injuries were caused by medical negligence. When negligent actions of a hospital or medical professional cause a birth injury, Chicago birth injury lawyers can file a medical malpractice lawsuit against the responsible party or parties. If the lawsuit is successful, birth injury victims can claim economic and non-economic damages under Illinois law.

  • Economic Damages – including compensation for financial losses caused by birth injuries. This includes medical expenses, rehabilitation and therapy expenses, and the costs of prescription medications and necessary medical devices.
  • Non-Economic Damages – including compensation for the child’s pain and suffering, disability, disfigurement, or loss of normal life. These are losses that do not have a monetary value attached to them.

If you suspect that the actions or inaction of your medical team contributed to your baby’s birth injuries, taking legal action right away can help you get the compensation you need to pay for medical bills, future medical treatment, and other financial losses. An experienced birth injury lawyer who is familiar with the risk factors for birth injuries will review your medical records and may work with medical experts to determine whether your child suffered injuries caused by medical negligence or malpractice.

About The Author

Photo of Jeffrey  Goldberg
Attorney Jeffrey M. Goldberg has spent his entire professional career handling cases involving birth injury, medical malpractice, product liability and related accidents.