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Forceps delivery complications

Forceps are a type of obstetric tool that health care professionals can use to assist a difficult vaginal birth, but there are risks involved. Doctors must know when using forceps is appropriate and be careful to avoid injuring the mother or child. If a doctor is found responsible for a birth injury from complications of forceps delivery, they may be held accountable with a lawsuit.

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What happens during a forceps delivery?

During a forceps delivery, the doctor uses special tools that resemble salad tongs to help pull the baby out when vaginal labor becomes prolonged or complicated. Before the doctor can use forceps, the mother’s cervix must be fully dilated and her membranes must be broken.

Baby being deliveredIf the mother hasn’t already had an epidural, she will need to empty her bladder and be numbed with an anesthetic.

The obstetrician inserts the forceps one at a time and locks them in position around the baby’s head. Then, as the mother pushes during contractions, the doctor guides the baby through the birth canal.

If forceps are improperly used, however, they can cause the following complications:

  • Brain damage (which can lead to cerebral palsy)
  • Erb’s palsy
  • Rectal or vaginal tears in the mother
  • Seizures
  • Skull fractures

Sometimes, the mother will also undergo an episiotomy. An episiotomy is an incision made in the perineum (the tissue between the vagina and anus) that creates space for the forceps to be inserted.

If you had a forceps delivery and experienced complications from the procedure, share your story with one of our trusted registered nurses today to learn about your options.

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When is a forceps delivery necessary?

Obstetrical forceps
Forceps are a type of obstetric tool that health care professionals can use to assist a difficult vaginal birth.

There are many different ways to deliver a baby. In cases of complicated or prolonged labor, doctors may use tools like forceps or vacuum extraction to perform an operative vaginal delivery. These tools are generally used in the second stage of labor.

There are times when using forceps is appropriate and times when it’s absolutely necessary — and then there are also times when it shouldn’t be done.

  • A forceps delivery may be the safest option when:
  • The baby is delivered with face presentation (when the back of the baby’s skull is against the baby’s own upper back)
  • The baby is premature
  • The baby is stuck in the birth canal and showing signs of fetal distress
  • More than one baby is being born
  • The mother has high blood pressure, heart disease, or other health conditions
  • The mother is too tired to keep pushing during contractions
  • A forceps delivery should not be done when the baby:
  • Can’t fit through the mother’s pelvis
  • Has a bleeding disorder or weak bones
  • Is in an unknown position
  • Is leading with their arms or shoulders during birth

Health care professionals are required to understand when this type of assisted delivery reduces the risk of injury and when it might have the opposite effect. If you or your baby are injured as a result of the doctor using forceps during delivery, contact us today to find out if you can file a lawsuit.

What are the risks of a forceps delivery?

The risks of a forceps delivery include severe injuries to the baby and/or mother. Babies can be left with long-term birth injuries and permanent impairments like cerebral palsy depending on the damage done by forceps.

Health care professionals should be aware of the risks associated with the use of forceps and take the necessary precautions to prevent accidents.

Although it’s normal for a baby to have temporary marks on their face and skull after a forceps delivery, there are other possible medical conditions that are not normal — and sometimes cause lasting damage. Learn about the health problems often linked to forceps below.

Birth injuries

When a forceps delivery is performed poorly or when another option would’ve been safer, birth injuries may occur. Although some birth injuries are minor and can heal on their own, others can severely impact the child’s quality of life for years to come.

Possible risks to a baby from forceps delivery complications include:

  • Bone and skull fractures
  • Brain damage
  • Bruises and lacerations (cuts) to the head and face
  • Intracranial hematoma (bleeding inside the skull)
  • Shoulder dystocia
  • Seizures
  • Temporary facial palsy (nerve damage in the baby’s face that leads to muscle weakness and drooping)

If you believe your child’s birth injury could have been prevented and was caused by medical negligence during a forceps delivery, you may be able to seek legal help.

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Cerebral palsy

Cerebral palsy refers to a group of movement disorders that affects the nervous system. It is a lifelong disability that prevents the brain from controlling the body’s muscles. While treatments can improve mobility and reduce symptoms, there is no cure.

Cerebral palsy often stems from brain damage at birth, and damage to different areas of the brain leads to different symptoms of cerebral palsy, such as abnormal posture, inability to stand up, and difficulty speaking.

Forceps use may increase the risk of brain damage — and cerebral palsy — in a baby.

Symptoms of cerebral palsy may include:

  • Abnormal muscle tone
  • Delays in mobility (crawling, rolling over, walking)
  • Hearing and/or vision problems
  • Inability to lift the head or stand
  • Trouble holding onto items or clapping hands
  • Uncontrollable muscle movement

Cerebral palsy may require extensive treatment and accommodations for the rest of the child’s life.

Erb’s palsy

Whereas cerebral palsy comes from damage to the brain, Erb’s palsy occurs due to nerve damage in the shoulder, arm, or hand (the area known as the brachial plexus).

Erb’s palsy is the most common type of birth-related brachial plexus injury, followed by Klumpke’s palsy.

Erb’s palsy may happen in cases of shoulder dystocia, in which one or both of the baby’s shoulders gets stuck in the mother’s pelvis during vaginal birth.

Sometimes the doctor pulls on the baby with forceps to dislodge the shoulder, which may stretch or tear the nerves in the baby’s brachial plexus. This type of brachial plexus injury may lead to Erb’s palsy.

Symptoms of Erb’s palsy include:

  • Limited motion in the arm
  • Numbness in the arm or hand
  • Paralysis of the shoulder, arm, or elbow
  • Waiter’s tip position (the arm hangs by the side and the wrist turns inward)

Even though most (about 80%) of those with Erb’s palsy will fully recover, medical expenses can add up quickly.

Fortunately, the experienced attorneys we work with can help victims pursue compensation to cover those costs. Get a free case review and learn how to get started.

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Can forceps delivery injuries be treated?

Yes, all forceps delivery injuries can be treated.

Baby hooked up to wires in an intensive care unitBruises, blemishes, and small cuts tend to heal on their own, but more serious injuries could have lasting consequences. Serious forceps delivery complications can cause long-term or lifelong conditions like cerebral palsy and brain damage. Although these conditions can be treated, they cannot be cured.

Mothers who experience minor injuries during a forceps delivery generally need minimal treatment. Those who have an episiotomy or suffer a vaginal tear may need dissolvable stitches, and some may also need a catheter to address urinary incontinence (loss of bladder control) for up to a day after delivery.

Forceps delivery complications can lead to a wide range of injuries, so the hospital staff should always check on both the mother and baby after an assisted delivery.

Can you sue for forceps delivery complications?

Possibly, yes. When a health care professional makes a mistake and a patient is injured as a result, that person (or their family) may be able to sue for medical malpractice.

A forceps delivery is not a risk-free procedure, so doctors must understand when it should and shouldn’t be done. If a health care professional makes the wrong decision and injures the mother or baby as a result, they may be held liable with a birth injury lawsuit.

In addition to the obstetricians, nurses, and other staff that can be held responsible for their behavior in the delivery room, the hospitals themselves may be liable for forceps-related birth injuries as well.

It’s the hospital's responsibility to ensure it hires and maintain a competent and properly trained staff to reduce the chances of forceps delivery complications.

If you or your child were harmed by forceps delivery complications, you may be entitled to compensation. Contact us today to learn about the steps you can take.

Filing a medical negligence claim for forceps delivery injuries

The health issues that may stem from forceps delivery complications can put a financial burden on families and loved ones.

A medical negligence lawsuit can allow you to seek compensation for:

  • Doctor visits
  • Medical equipment
  • Medication
  • Mobility assistance equipment
  • Physical therapy
  • Surgery
  • And more

An experienced birth injury lawyer can help you file a medical negligence claim if you have a case. From there, your team will work to get you the maximum amount of compensation as quickly as possible. Get started with a free case review today.

Forceps delivery complications FAQs

Can forceps cause permanent damage?

Yes. Although forceps can be used to make delivery safer and protect the mother and baby from injury, they can also cause long-term damage.

Forceps delivery complications like a brain injury at birth can cause permanent damage. These complications can lead to physical and mental disabilities that affect the baby for life, including cerebral palsy and intellectual impairment.

Damage may occur when the doctor uses the wrong type of forceps, uses forceps improperly, or uses forceps when a safer alternative should have been considered, such as a cesarean section (C-section).

What are the maternal complications of a forceps delivery?

Babies aren’t the only ones who may be harmed by complications of forceps delivery. There are also several issues that the mother might face when this type of assisted vaginal delivery is done improperly.

Maternal complications of forceps delivery may include:

  • Bladder or urethra injury
  • Blood clots (especially in the veins of the legs or pelvis)
  • Long or short-term urinary incontinence or difficulty urinating
  • Pelvic organ prolapse (when the uterus sags out of position)
  • Rectal tears
  • Vaginal tears

Pelvic organ prolapse and rectal tears can also happen in unassisted deliveries, but forceps increase the risk of these injuries. According to the Cleveland Clinic, rectal tears occur in 10% of forceps deliveries, compared to just 3% of unassisted deliveries.

How long does it take to recover from a forceps delivery?

Pregnancy is taxing on the body no matter what type of delivery the mother goes through, so the 6 weeks after birth are considered the normal maternal recovery period. Forceps deliveries generally follow the same timeline, as long as there are no complications.

If there are forceps delivery complications, the recovery period depends on the severity of the injury. A mother who has an episiotomy or experiences a vaginal tear may need stitches, but the stitches are typically dissolvable and break down within 2-4 weeks. More severe tears may require surgery, leading to a longer recovery period.

Minor bruises and cuts in babies tend to heal within a couple of days to a few weeks.
Unfortunately, babies won’t ever recover from permanent disabilities like cerebral palsy that may stem from forceps delivery complications.

How can you prevent forceps complications?

Forceps delivery complications are avoidable, and both health care professionals and the hospitals they work in should take certain steps to prevent them from happening.

Hospitals are responsible for hiring a competent staff made up of trained professionals who understand how and when to safely use forceps, as well as which type of forceps to use.

While you can’t prevent a medical error that’s already occurred, you may be entitled to compensation for the emotional and financial damage you’ve suffered. If you believe that you or your child were injured due to a health care professional’s medical negligence, contact us for a free legal case review.

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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  2. Cleveland Clinic. (2021, October 20). Erb's palsy: What is it, symptoms, causes & treatment. Cleveland Clinic. Retrieved August 12, 2022, from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/21986-erbs-palsy
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