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Birth injury brain damage

Head and brain injuries are the most common birth-related injuries. Brain damage caused by an injury before, during, or after delivery can cause a child to suffer lifelong physical and/or mental disabilities. In severe cases, it can lead to cerebral palsy. Learn more about brain damage at birth, its effects on newborns, and how it can sometimes be linked to medical negligence.

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About 7 birth injuries occur for every 1,000 children born in the United States. Was your child one of them?

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About birth injury brain damage

Brain damage occurs when brain cells are harmed or destroyed. Brain damage from a birth injury can happen before, during, or shortly after the birthing process. There are many different types and causes of infant brain damage.

A crying baby's umbilical cord being cut in a delivery roomSome cases may be the result of a traumatic brain injury during delivery, while others may be caused by an infection during the mother’s pregnancy.

Babies may be able to recover from mild cases of brain damage. Sadly, more severe cases can lead to cerebral palsy and may require ongoing medical treatment.

If your child’s cerebral palsy was caused by brain damage from a birth injury you believe could have been prevented, you may be eligible for financial compensation.

Reach out to a nurse advocate now to share your story and learn what might have caused your child’s brain damage.

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Causes of brain damage at birth

Several factors can result in birth injury brain damage. Here are some of the most common causes.

Oxygen deprivation (asphyxia)

Asphyxia is the leading cause of brain damage in newborn babies. It occurs when the infant’s brain does not get enough oxygen during childbirth.

Complications that can lead to oxygen deprivation include early detachment of the placenta, a ruptured uterus, a pinched or twisted umbilical cord during birth, or a blocked airway.

There are two types of oxygen deprivation: hypoxia and anoxia. Hypoxia happens when the brain isn’t getting enough oxygen. Anoxia is more severe and occurs when the brain completely loses its oxygen supply.

Physical trauma

Physical head injuries are another common cause of brain damage. A baby’s head can be injured when the mother's birth canal or pelvis places pressure on the skull for an extended period of time.

Excessive force from the use of forceps or vacuum extractors during delivery can also cause significant physical trauma to a baby’s head and brain.

Maternal infections

If a mother develops a bacterial or viral infection during pregnancy that isn’t properly diagnosed and treated, it can transfer to their unborn baby through the umbilical cord and potentially cause brain damage. Infant brain damage from a maternal infection usually happens in the late stages of pregnancy or during a vaginal delivery.

Meningitis — an infection of the membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord — is especially dangerous.

Other types of maternal infection that can possibly lead to brain damage include:

  • Cytomegalovirus (CMV): A very common herpes virus that can cause mild symptoms in adults but serious problems in an unborn baby or newborn
  • Intrauterine infection: An infection of the amniotic sac surrounding the fetus (also called chorioamnionitis)
  • Rubella: A contagious viral infection also known as German measles that affects the skin and lymph nodes and causes a distinctive red rash
  • Toxoplasmosis: A parasitic infection from an organism found most often in certain soil types, uncooked meat, and cat feces

Maternal infections can also increase the risk of premature birth, which is linked with higher rates of infant brain damage.


Bilirubin is a yellow-orange pigment created from the normal breakdown of red blood cells in the liver. When bilirubin builds up in an infant’s blood, it can cause them to develop jaundice, a common condition that causes yellowing of newborn baby's skin and eyes.

Infant jaundice can result in brain damage if not treated.

Severe cases of untreated jaundice can progress into kernicterus, a rare but serious form of brain damage. Kernicterus affects the parts of the brain that are responsible for movement and hearing, which means it can potentially lead to cerebral palsy, hearing loss, and even death.

Since kernicterus can be prevented by prompt treatment of newborn jaundice, it can be considered a birth injury and cause cerebral palsy.

Contact us for a free case review today if you believe your child suffered from kernicterus or another preventable birth injury.

Was your child's injury caused by medical negligence?
You may qualify for financial assistance.Get your free case review now!

Types of birth injury brain damage

There are various types of infant brain damage, each of which may cause a wide range of symptoms and can lead to long-term disabilities like cerebral palsy.

Hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy

Hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy (HIE) is the most common type of brain damage in newborn babies. It happens when the baby’s brain doesn’t get enough oxygen or blood flow for a long period of time.

HIE can occur before, during, or after childbirth. It can stem from maternal conditions like high blood pressure (preeclampsia) or issues during the birthing process, such as prolonged labor, umbilical cord complications, and respiratory (breathing) failure.

Usually, the length of time the baby’s brain goes without oxygen will determine how severe the damage is. When HIE destroys brain cells and tissue in the motor cortex (the part of the brain that controls body movements), it can lead to cerebral palsy and periventricular leukomalacia.

Periventricular leukomalacia

Periventricular leukomalacia (PVL) is a type of brain injury that occurs when white matter (the inner part of the brain) is damaged from lack of blood flow.

Because PVL affects the nerve cells that control movement, it can cause a child to experience spastic (tight) muscles, vision problems, and developmental delays associated with cerebral palsy.

Common risk factors for PVL include:

  • HIE
  • Infection
  • Intraventricular hemorrhages (brain bleeds)
  • Low birth weight (less than 5 pounds, 8 ounces)
  • Premature birth


Hydrocephalus is a rare condition that involves the buildup of fluid in the brain. It causes an abnormal increase in the size of a baby’s head to make room for the extra fluid.

About 1 out of every 500 newborns will suffer from hydrocephalus. In some babies, it’s genetic, but other causes include premature birth, infections, tumors, or bleeding inside the brain.

If not treated with surgery, hydrocephalus can put too much pressure on the hollow areas (ventricles) of a baby’s brain and lead to epilepsy, learning disabilities, vision problems, coordination issues, short-term memory loss, and more.

Intraventricular hemorrhage

Intraventricular hemorrhage (IVH) is bleeding that occurs in or near the hollow spaces of a baby’s brain that contain cerebrospinal fluid (ventricles). It’s most often seen in premature babies since the blood vessels in their brain are very fragile and more prone to bursting.

The smaller and more premature the baby, the higher the risk for IVH. IVH is especially common in premature babies who’ve experienced physical stress.

Brain bleeds can put pressure on the nerve cells and damage them. Severe damage to cells can lead to brain injury and cause motor problems.

Newborn cephalohematoma

Newborn cephalohematoma is a type of birth injury that causes blood to pool beneath a baby’s skull after a difficult vaginal delivery.

This pooled blood is usually visible as bumps or bulges that form at the back of the head. These cephalohematomas appear shortly after birth and may look like bruises.

Many cases of newborn cephalohematoma are harmless and heal on their own. However, if the hematoma is severe and not treated in a timely manner, it can put excess pressure on a baby’s brain tissue and lead to long-term complications like infection or brain damage.

Signs of brain damage in newborn babies

There are several brain damage symptoms parents and caregivers should look out for in newborns. Symptoms can vary based on your baby’s age, how severe the birth injury was, and the type of brain damage it caused.

Signs and symptoms of brain damage in newborns may include:

  • Abnormally large forehead
  • Abnormally shaped spine
  • Abnormally small head
  • Arched back while crying
  • Difficulty eating or swallowing
  • Excessive drooling
  • High-pitched crying
  • Loose muscles
  • Neck stiffness
  • Seizures and/or tremors
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Stiff muscles
  • Unusual eye movements
  • Visible scalp injuries

It’s important to get a medical diagnosis when your baby is showing signs of brain damage. If you need help finding a doctor to diagnose a potential brain injury, call (855) 220-1101 to speak with one of our registered nurse advocates.

Effects of infant brain damage

Brain damage at birth can have multiple effects, ranging from the emotional to physical. These effects may change over time as the baby gets older and their brain fully develops.

Some of the most common effects of birth injury brain damage are:

  • Diabetes, weight gain, or reduced body hair from hormonal imbalances
  • Difficulty remembering people and events
  • Exaggerated emotions (such as agitation or anger) that affect behavior
  • Extreme mood swings, depression, or anxiety
  • Issues with mobility, muscle weakness, balance, and coordination
  • Problems communicating verbally or physically

A timely diagnosis is key to helping reduce the long-term effects of birth injury brain damage. Contact our team today to get connected with medical and support resources.

Prognosis for birth injury brain damage

Brain damage is extremely complex, and the prognosis can depend on a number of different factors.

The specific type, location, and severity of the brain injury will impact the outlook for a baby born with brain damage.

For example, a child who develops cerebral palsy from birth injury brain damage will have the condition for life. Fortunately, however, cerebral palsy is not a progressive disorder that gets worse over time.

Many children who experience brain damage at birth go on to live happy, healthy lives with proper treatment. Unfortunately, moderate to severe brain damage can affect a child’s independence and overall quality of life for years to come.

Treatment for newborn brain damage

A baby in an incubatorIf brain damage is identified shortly after birth, surgery or therapeutic hypothermia (the intentional lowering of a baby’s body temperature) may be effective treatments.

A brain injury that isn’t diagnosed early on may need other types of treatment to address related symptoms rather than the brain damage itself.

Treatment options for brain damage symptoms include:

  • Adaptive equipment
  • Assistive devices
  • Educational interventions
  • Medication
  • Mobility aids
  • Occupational therapy
  • Physical therapy
  • Speech therapy

It’s important to get medical help as soon as possible after a brain damage diagnosis. A doctor can develop a custom treatment plan that meets your child’s needs.

Get help for birth injury brain damage

Hundreds of babies are born with brain damage from a birth injury each year. Some of these cases are severe enough that they can cause cerebral palsy.

The effects of birth injury brain damage can be devastating for families, especially if the injury could have been prevented. A medical mistake or a failure to respond to complications during the birthing process can cause lifelong injury to a child and may be considered medical negligence.

If your baby’s brain damage was caused by medical negligence, you may be able to seek financial assistance to help cover treatment and other costs. Get a free case review today to learn whether you can take legal action for your child’s brain injury.

Birth injury brain damage FAQs

What is the most common cause of brain damage in newborns?

The most common cause of infant brain damage is a lack of oxygen to the baby’s brain. This is also known as birth asphyxia.

Asphyxia occurs in about 2 of every 1,000 live births, with premature infants at particularly high risk.

Medical staff have a very short window to treat birth asphyxia. If it’s not addressed in a timely manner, it can cause serious brain damage and lead to cerebral palsy, impaired vision, and other disorders.

How common is brain damage at birth?

About 3 in 1,000 babies born full term in the U.S. will suffer some degree of brain damage. More than half of newborn brain damage cases are caused by asphyxia (lack of oxygen).

How do you know if your newborn has brain damage?

Signs of severe brain damage can be noticeable within a few minutes or hours of childbirth. In other cases, symptoms can take months or even years to show up.

Some obvious physical signs to look for include an unusually large forehead, black-and-blue discoloration behind the ears or around the eyes, and visible bruises, bumps, or cuts on the head.

Parents should take their child to a doctor as soon as they recognize signs or symptoms of infant brain damage. The sooner a diagnosis is made, the sooner the child can begin getting necessary treatment.

Can birth brain damage be reversed?

No, brain damage at birth cannot be reversed, since damaged brain cells cannot regenerate or repair themselves. However, immediate interventions like neonatal body cooling (newborn therapeutic hypothermia) and surgery to address fractures or ruptured blood vessels can help prevent further damage.

Infants born with a mild case of brain damage may be able to make a full recovery. More severe forms of newborn brain damage may require lifelong medical treatment.

If your child suffered brain damage during childbirth, you may be able to pursue financial compensation through a lawsuit. Get in touch with our team to see if you have a case.

Cerebral Palsy Guide was founded upon the goal of educating families about cerebral palsy, raising awareness, and providing support for children, parents, and caregivers affected by the condition. Our easy-to-use website offers simple, straightforward information that provides families with medical and legal solutions. We are devoted to helping parents and children access the tools they need to live a life full of happiness

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