Bringing a new life into the world is an emotional and life-altering event, whether it is your first child or a new member of your growing family. You will have the responsibility for their welfare throughout their childhood, and many parents say the worrying for their children never stops, even when they are adults. However, although childbirth is a beautiful and natural aspect of life, there are risks involved. It can be physically and mentally traumatic for the mother and baby, and birth injuries can be sustained by either or both of them.
With the advancements in medical care during pregnancy, labour and birth, infant mortality rates have vastly decreased over the last thirty years. According to the latest figures available from the Office for National Statistics, in 2016 there were 2,651 infant fatalities in England and Wales, compared to 6,313 in 1986, a fall of 60.4 percent. But injuries incurred during childbirth are still relatively common.
Any physical traumas suffered by the baby are serious, but injuries like fractures and dislocations, when quickly diagnosed and correctly treated, will often heal normally. Damage to the brain or nervous system could have far longer lasting consequences. One of the problems with these types of injuries is that they can go undetected at the time, leading to further complications. Another issue is that the cause of the injury can be difficult to assess as the condition could be genetic, have arisen during the pregnancy or have occurred during labour and delivery.
During childbirth, the mother can suffer injuries which are considered to be fairly normal, such as minor tears and muscle strains. For a number of weeks afterward, she could experience pain and discomfort and possibly some incontinence. However, some mothers sustain more serious tears, damage to the muscles and even pelvic fractures that can be misdiagnosed or undetected during the trauma of the birth.
Even long after the birth, the symptoms of an undetected birth injury may continue, but not be reported by the new mother. She might consider them to be a normal result of childbirth. Some women can be too embarrassed to discuss certain symptoms like incontinence. For others it is not just physical injury, but emotional trauma that is the issue, with some suffering from post-natal depression (PND) or even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Birth Injury Risk for the Baby
The most common birth injuries to babies are a result of the natural forces involved in the process of labour and delivery and often heal without the need for treatment. But others result from birthing problems, the use of instruments or medical errors.
In the past, when a caesarean delivery was a last resort, forceps were commonly used to assist in pulling the baby from deep in the birth canal during a difficult delivery. But there was a high risk of injury to the child from grasping its head with the instrument. With the advancements in the safety of caesarean births, a doctor is far more likely to recommend this form of delivery when problems arise. Forceps or a vacuum cup are used more rarely and usually only in the last stage of delivery.
The bones of babies at the time of birth are more flexible than those of adults, but also more fragile. While their skeleton can compress to enable passage through the birth canal, they can sustain fractures. Although painful for the new-born, when detected and quickly treated, these injuries should soon heal normally. Unfortunately, if not correctly assessed an untreated fracture could leave the baby with a deformity.
The baby can often suffer from nerve damage during birth and the consequences of this can vary widely depending on how severe the damage is. The majority of nerve related birth injuries are minor and the result of compression. These can result in the numbing and weakening of the area affected by the nerve but this will usually resolve itself in a short time. But under some circumstances nerves can be stretched or even severed which can cause long-term effects such as limb weakness, permanent loss of feeling, respiratory difficulties or partial or complete paralysis.
The skull of a foetus is soft and flexible and brain damage can be caused all too commonly during birth. There are a number of potential causes such as oxygen starvation, compression, interrupted flow of blood, infection or misuse of instruments. When relatively minor, damage may not be immediately apparent and could be undetected until the child starts school, but the effects can be life-changing.
The Risks of Birth Injuries for the Mother
While giving birth, the most common injuries suffered by the mother tend to be due to tearing. Around nine out of ten women are affected by perineal tears, the majority of which heal quickly and without lasting symptoms. But those who incur third or fourth degree tears, especially where it goes undiagnosed and unrepaired, can suffer from post-natal pain and incontinence for several months.
Damage to muscles, especially those of the pelvic floor, is also quite common during childbirth. It is possible for the mother to suffer from a pelvic fracture which can often be undiagnosed, causing pain and discomfort long after the birth.
Preeclampsia is a serious condition, but is usually evident with symptoms including a rise in blood pressure, impairment of the liver function and a decrease of urination among others. When the condition is not detected or is misdiagnosed it can have serious, or even fatal consequences for mother and child.
What to do if You're Affected by Birth Injuries
Medical staff are highly trained but If you or your baby is injured during birth it can have far reaching consequences for your child and your family life. Where you feel that the injury has been caused by medical negligence before, during or after the birth, it is advisable to consult a legal expert who can advise if there are grounds for a claim for birth injury compensation.