Skip to Content

The Causes & Symptoms of Neurological Birth Injuries


Birth injuries are tragic accidents with lifelong consequences. Part of the reason our firm is committed to representing victims in these cases is they are one of the most significant emotional and financial burdens a family can bear. Up to 50% of birth injuries are preventable—meaning there’s a good chance that doctors are responsible for many of the lifelong disabilities thousands of children are forced to live with.

Below, we take a look at the causes and symptoms of the most common birth injuries we’ve encountered: neurological injuries at birth.

Neurological Birth Injuries

Speaking broadly, neurological birth injuries are injuries that affects the brain’s function and the effects of brain damage. Commonly, neurological injuries are caused by oxygen deprivation at birth. Throughout labor, babies are in a vulnerable position: their oxygen supply through the umbilical cord (or through their lungs) is briefly put in danger while the child is being delivered.

Doctors are trained to mitigate this risk—they monitor fetal distress to ensure the baby is getting plenty of oxygen—but sometimes their mistakes cause babies to lose oxygen and suffer brain damage. The below injuries detail the specific ways a baby can suffer neurological injuries at birth.

Cerebral Palsy

Cerebral palsy is a disorder caused by brain damage to the brain’s motor cortex, basal ganglia, or cerebellum. The result is an inability to move or function normally. The nerves controlling muscle flexing will misfire constantly, causing the muscles to relax or tense uncontrollably. Damage to these parts of the brain also result in behavioral issues and developmental obstacles—children with CP are 7 times more likely to have autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

The major symptoms of cerebral palsy are:

  • Abnormally floppy limbs and low muscle tone
  • Abnormally toned and flexed muscles
  • Delayed basic motor skills (e.g. crawling, swallowing)
  • Stiff, jerky, or “spastic” movements

Cerebral palsy is one of the most common mobility injuries in the United States. About 10,000 babies born every year will develop a form of cerebral palsy, and statistically 1 in 5 of these cases are caused by birth injuries, specifically oxygen deprivation at birth.

Birth Asphyxia

Birth asphyxia is a general term for any injury that causes oxygen deprivation before or during birth. It can be caused by several different events, including umbilical prolapse (when the umbilical travels through the birth canal first), placental abruption (when the placenta detaches too early), shoulder dystocia (more on that below), or breech presentation.

In each of these cases, a baby’s ability to breathe or receive oxygen through the placenta is threatened. After only 5 minutes of oxygen deprivation, brain tissue begins to die and become permanently dysfunctional.

Symptoms of oxygen deprivation at birth, or birth asphyxia, include:

  • Unconsciousness
  • Lasting brain damage
  • Weak or nonexistent breathing
  • Blue or gray skin coloration
  • Low heart rate
  • Weak reflexes
  • Poor muscle tone
  • High acid in the blood
  • Seizing

These signs of oxygen deprivation at birth will occur after anywhere from 5-15 minutes of deprivation. After five minutes of no oxygen, permanent brain damage becomes more likely with every passing second. However, there are some treatments—for instance, body cooling or breathing support—that help prevent further damage from birth asphyxiation.

Hypoxic Ischemic Encephalopathy

This medical term essentially translates to “brain disorder [encephalopathy] caused a lack of oxygen [hypoxic] due to blood flow [ischemic].” This is a specific form of birth asphyxia, although the terms are sometimes used interchangeably. HIE causes severe and unpredictable brain damage when it occurs and often necessitates lifelong care and supervision.

The causes of HIE include anything that limits blood flow to the baby:

  • Preeclampsia
  • Poor circulation
  • Umbilical cord accidents
  • Prolonged labor

It’s a serious condition—HIE is responsible for 23% of neonatal deaths worldwide. HIE is also the underlying cause of cerebral palsy in 10% of cases. If a mother has blood clotting issues, that’s also a risk factor for HIE. However, in a vast number of cases the injuries caused by HIE events are linked to medical negligence—the lack of care by nurses or doctors that leads to birth injuries.

Symptoms of Neurological Damage at Birth

The signs of neurological damage may not appear for months after birth, while some signs are immediately apparent. If you suspect your child has suffered brain damage from oxygen deprivation at birth, then speak with a medical professional as soon as possible. The sooner your child can receive treatment or rehabilitation, the better off their outcome.

Signs of neurological damage at birth include:

  • Excessive lethargy
  • Poor reflexes
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Inability to sleep
  • Paralysis
  • Tremors
  • Seizures
  • Missed developmental milestones (crawling, pulling up, sitting, grasping)

Brain damage at birth has lifelong implications for both children and their families. Infant brain damage, while treatable, is permanent; children often require special educational resources, equipment, and care to eventually become independent (if they're able to at all). This often requires at least one parent to stop working, which can put undue financial strain on the family.

If you fear that your child suffered serious injuries at birth, contact our Florida birth injury lawyers for a free review of your child’s case. Stewart Tilghman Fox Bianchi & Cain, P.A. has won hundreds of millions of dollars for the wrongfully injured—and we have over 100 years of experience with complex birth injury and medical malpractice cases. Each case we handle receives our entire firm’s full focus and attention. If your child may need lifelong care, that’s the type of focus you need right now.

Call (305) 770-6335 or contact us online for a free consultation—get the answers you need.