In the United States alone, over 1 million people currently have some form of brain damage, and an overwhelming amount of these people are infants. The medical costs associated with baby brain damage is astronomical, reaching in the millions each year. Infant brain damage typically occurs during pregnancy, during the delivery process, or shortly after birth. A variety of factors can cause infant brain damage, and it’s important to look out for any telltale signs if you suspect your baby is injured.
Lack of Oxygen
One of leading causes of infant brain damage is lack of oxygen shortly after birth. Per the American Journal of Neuroradiology, newborn asphyxia happens at an alarming rate: at least 2 to 10 out of every 1,000 newborns experience lack of oxygen. Unfortunately, many cases of lack of oxygen could have been prevented beforehand with the correct medical monitoring and treatment. It’s always important to receive regular prenatal checkups during pregnancy to ensure physicians have the best chances of detecting any abnormalities.
Brain damage caused by lack of oxygen falls into two different categories: anoxia and hypoxia. Hypoxia occurs when the infant is deprived of the adequate amount of oxygen, leading to mild to moderate brain damage. Apoxia occurs when the infant undergoes a total lack of oxygen, which can lead to severe brain damage. Both hypoxia and anoxia can lead to cerebral palsy and a host of other medical disorders.
The most common reasons infants are deprived of adequate oxygen at birth include:
- Umbilical Cord Problems: A twisted, prolapsed, or knotted umbilical cord can cut off an infant’s oxygen supply at the most critical moments of their lives. In addition, in some instance, physicians cut the umbilical cord much too soon, cutting off the infant’s oxygen supply before they are breathing properly on their own. Furthermore, if an umbilical cord gets wrapped around an infant’s neck, doctors have only a few precious minutes to unwrap it before oxygen deprivation begins.
- Birth Canal Problems: When a mother undergoes a difficult labor, an infant may get stuck in the birth canal. If medical intervention doesn’t happen quickly, the infant risks losing oxygen. Unfortunately, babies who are lodged in the birth canal are also at risk for other injuries, including Erb’s palsy and limb injuries.
- Blocked Airways: Mucous can sometimes become lodged in an infant’s lungs, constricted their airways. Again, healthcare providers must act quickly in order to prevent long-term medical problems.
- Placental Abruption: If the placenta and uterus separate too rapidly, the oxygen supply may reduced and the infant may not get the proper amount.
When bilirubin builds up in an infant’s blood, jaundice may occur. Jaundice is defined as a medical condition in which the skin and the white area of the eyes take on yellowish color as a result of the bilirubin buildup. There is a common misconception that jaundice is a minor disorder that will clear up on its own. Yet, if jaundice is left untreated, the infant is at risk of developing kernicterus, a type of brain damage that develops due to severe cases of jaundice. When bilirubin levels are extremely high, it will move from the blood stream and into the brain tissue, causing serious brain damage.
Kernicterus falls into three different stages, with the earliest stage marked by extreme jaundice, lethargy, and difficulty in swallowing and sucking. If it progresses, the infant may experience seizures, high-pitched wails, and a protruded fontanel (also known as a baby’s “soft spot” on the top of the head). The final stage of kernicterus is marked by intellectual loss, hearing loss, seizures, movement disorders, and rigid muscles. In some extreme cases, infants may die from kernicterus. Treatment must start immediately and typically entails transfusions and light therapy.
Although maternal infections are a common complication during birth, they are also another major cause of the onset of infant brain dame. Infant brain damage due to maternal infections usually occur during the delivery process or during pregnancy. If a physician monitors, detects, and treats the infections, the chance of infant brain damage is significantly reduced.
The most common types of maternal infections that lead to infant brain damage include:
- Intrauterine Infections: Intrauterine infections happen while the infant is still in the womb, and can lead to brain damage before the infant is born. The severity of risks will depend on the type of infection as well as how far along the pregnancy is. Examples of intrauterine infections include rubella, herpes, and cytomegalovirus. The infections are most dangerous during the first trimester of pregnancy.
- Preeclampsia: Preeclampsia is a progressive disorder marked by elevated blood pressure and protein in the urine of pregnant women. According to the National Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition (HMHB), preeclampsia affects up to 8% of pregnancies worldwide. It also leads to restricted blood flow, which in turn puts the infant at risk for a host of medical issues, including brain damage.
Physical Trauma During Labor and Delivery
Physical trauma during labor and delivery may also lead to baby brain damage and can be caused due to various reasons, including:
- Excessive Pulling: During delivery, if a doctor pulls too hard or in an abnormal, a host of injuries may occur, including brain damage.
- Abnormal Use of Birth-Assisting Tools: Tools including a vacuum-extraction tool or forceps must be used with experience and caution when delivering an infant. If used the improper way, brain damage as well as other physical injuries may occur.
- Difficulties During Labor: Extended periods of pushing and contractions during a long, difficult labor can result in brain damage. This typically occurs when the baby’s brain and head are constantly knocked and pushed against the mother’s pelvis.
Dropped Glucose Levels
Dropped infant glucose levels usually occur during a prolonged labor that’s marked with extreme difficulties. It’s extremely important that glucose levels are always checked after delivery, especially if the mother experiences an arduous, tiring labor and delivery process. If the glucose levels are found to be too low, medical intervention is required immediately. Waiting too long may result in brain damage.