Caput Succedaneum

Caput succedaneum occurs when a baby's scalp is swollen after delivery. Learn more about possible risks and the prognosis for this birth injury.

Caput succedaneum is a medical term describing swelling that occurs to a baby’s scalp shortly after delivery.  During childbirth, especially during head-first deliveries, pressure exerted on a baby’s head can damage the scalp, leading to caput succedaneum as well as other birth injuries. 

Although it may cause slight discomfort for the baby, this is not a life-threatening condition in itself.  It can, however, lead to additional health issues, such as jaundice.

What is Caput Succedaneum?

Caput succedaneum is a type of swelling that occurs outside of the skull. It often presents as a “conehead” shape, which can be disheartening for parents. The good news is that the swelling typically resolves within a few days unless there is bruising or additional complications.

If bruising is present, the infant is at risk of developing jaundice, which can be dangerous if it is not properly diagnosed and treated. There is also a risk for hair loss (alopecia) in a ring shape around the skull.

What Causes Caput Succedaneum?

In most instances, caput succedaneum occurs after a long, difficult delivery, usually after the membranes break as the baby descends into the birth canal. It can also occur during deliveries that involve:

  • Premature rupture of the membranes
  • Primiparous mother (first birth)
  • Oligohydramnios (low levels of amniotic fluid)

Using a vacuum extraction tool or forceps during delivery also increases the risk of caput succedaneum, primarily because the vacuum must draw the soft tissue up into the vacuum cup to be able to control the delivery.

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Symptoms of Caput Succedaneum

The most common symptoms of this condition include:

  • Puffiness under the skin of the scalp (the most prominent symptom)
  • Bruising and/or color changes to the scalp
  • Molding increase on the head
  • Scalp swelling across the infant’s midline and suture lines

No formal testing is usually needed or performed to diagnose caput succedaneum. Instead, a physician will perform a physical examination and assess the symptoms to make a formal diagnosis.

Treatment

The condition almost always resolves itself within a few days. No treatment is usually necessary. In fact, attempting to drain the scalp area may lead to infections that will exacerbate the condition. However, since the bruising caused by caput succedaneum may break down into the bilirubin, there is a heightened risk of the baby developing jaundice. Jaundice, if treated, typically won’t pose any problems.

Yet, if left undiagnosed and untreated, jaundice may lead to severe medical issues, including brain damage and in severe cases, infant death. That is unusual in a full-term infant since the liver is mature enough to excrete the byproducts of jaundice-bilirubin.

Prognosis

If the infant develops jaundice that’s treated immediately, there are usually no long-term problems associated with caput succedaneum as the baby’s scalp begins to heal within a few days and the head returns to its normal size.  However, as previously mentioned, untreated jaundice can lead to several long-term complications, including Kernicterus, a form of brain damage that can be marked by:

  • Athetoid cerebral palsy
  • Hearing loss
  • Poor tooth enamel development
  • Permanent upward gaze

How to Optimize Your Child’s Prognosis

Many parents are often scared and confused at the appearance of an infant with caput succedaneum. The head may take on an abnormally large appearance, bulging around the affected scalp area. Keep in mind that this is a normal appearance for babies with this type of condition, and since it generally occurs shortly after birth, your physician should be able to respond immediately in order to detect any other problems. The baby’s head will resume its normal shape after the swelling goes down.

Kimberly Langdon

Page Medically Reviewed By Kim Langdon, M.D.

Kimberly Langdon, M.D. is a retired board-certified OB/GYN with 19 years of clinical experience. She currently works as a medical writer and featured healthcare expert. She is a regular medical reviewer for Birth Injury Guide.

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Written By BIG Staff

The team at Birth Injury Guide is comprised of lawyers, doctors, nurses and professional writers. We strive to provide up-to-date content that is accurate and relevant to the needs of families affected by birth injuries.

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