Lack of oxygen at birth – What are the long-term effects?

By Jason Brady

baby and mother holding hands

Lack of oxygen at birth, medically referred to as birth asphyxia or perinatal hypoxia, occurs when a newborn’s brain and other organs do not receive sufficient oxygen during the birthing process.

There are a number of potential causes, long-term effects and treatment options. In some cases, lack of oxygen at birth can constitute medical negligence on the part of the personnel responsible for both the mother’s and the baby’s care.

What can cause a lack of oxygen at birth?

Several factors can contribute to oxygen deprivation during childbirth. Some of these include:

  • Placental problems: Issues with the placenta, such as placental abruption or placenta previa, can disrupt oxygen flow to the baby.
  • Umbilical cord complications: Knots, prolapse, or compression of the umbilical cord can restrict oxygen and blood flow.
  • Maternal health conditions: Conditions like preeclampsia or gestational diabetes can increase the risk of oxygen deprivation.
  • Premature birth: Babies born before 37 weeks may have underdeveloped organs, including the lungs, which can lead to respiratory problems and oxygen deficiency.
  • Difficulties during labour: Prolonged labour, foetal distress, or an emergency caesarean section can impact the baby’s oxygen supply.
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What can be the long-term effects of a lack of oxygen at birth?

The consequences of oxygen deprivation at birth can range from mild to severe, depending on the duration and severity of the deprivation. Some potential long-term effects include:

  • Cerebral palsy: One of the most significant concerns associated with birth asphyxia is the development of cerebral palsy, a group of motor disorders that affect muscle movement and coordination.
  • Intellectual disabilities: Oxygen deprivation can lead to cognitive impairments and learning disabilities that may impact a child’s intellectual development.
  • Developmental delays: Children who experience oxygen deprivation may exhibit delays in reaching developmental milestones, such as walking and talking.
  • Epilepsy and seizures: Birth asphyxia increases the risk of epilepsy and recurrent seizures later in life.
  • Behavioural and emotional issues: Some children may experience behavioural problems, attention issues, and emotional challenges.

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How can oxygen deprivation be treated?

The treatment of oxygen deprivation at birth requires prompt and specialised medical attention. The primary goal is to restore adequate oxygen levels to prevent or minimise potential long-term effects.

Treatment options may include:

  • Hypothermia therapy: Also known as cooling therapy, this method involves reducing the baby’s body temperature to protect the brain from further damage.
  • Ventilation support: Mechanical ventilation can assist the baby’s breathing and improve oxygen levels.
  • Medications: Medications may be administered to stabilise blood pressure, control seizures, or manage other medical conditions.
  • Rehabilitation therapy: For babies who experience long-term effects, various therapies such as physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech therapy, can help improve their quality of life.

Blackwater Law successfully represented the family of baby Blake in making a midwife negligence claim after the community midwife failed to notice a severe medical abnormality.

New-born baby in hospital

Can medical negligence cause oxygen deprivation?

In some cases, oxygen deprivation at birth may result from medical negligence. Medical professionals have a duty of care to provide a reasonable standard of treatment. Negligence may occur if healthcare providers fail to recognise and appropriately respond to complications during childbirth.

If medical negligence can be proven, affected families may be entitled to seek redress via no-win, no-fee birth injury compensation claims to cover medical expenses, ongoing care, and other associated costs.