Brain Injury

brain damageMillions of babies suffer from infant brain damage each year, which results in typically permanent neurological and physical issues. It is important that parents understand how these injuries occur. There are several different causes of infant brain damage, with many occurring just before or during birth. The following are some of the most common causes of brain damage in infants.

Physical Trauma

Many cases of brain damage occur due to physical trauma that occurs at birth. This can include the use of vacuums or forceps for assisted delivery – if these tools are not placed properly, they can cause serious damage to the baby’s fragile head. Long, difficult births can cause the baby to repeatedly hit the pelvic bone during the delivery, which has also been known to cause damage. Additionally, if the doctor twists or pulls excessively to assist with a difficult delivery, the infant’s brain can be damaged.

Birth Asphyxia

Birth asphyxia, which is also known as oxygen deprivation, occurs in around 4 out of every 1,000 births. During the birthing process, the umbilical cord can wrap around the infant’s neck, the placenta can dislodge and become stuck in the birth canal, the mother may have blood pressure issues, anemia may be present, or the baby may not start breathing on his or her own quickly enough after birth. While these are all serious issues, a doctor who responds to these emergencies quickly can prevent serious problems.

There are essentially two stages of oxygen deprivation. The first stage results when the baby is deprived of oxygen for several minutes, resulting in cellular death. The second stage is due to the blood and oxygen being restored, which is known as reperfusion injury. This stage may last up to several weeks, or for as little as a few days.

Babies who suffer from oxygen deprivation that is labelled as mild or moderate may see complete recovery with swift medical intervention. In more severe cases where the oxygen is cut off for several minutes, the baby can suffer from permanent brain damage, as well as damage to the kidneys, respiratory system, digestive system and the cardiovascular system. In some cases, especially those that are considered the most severe, death can result.

Maternal Infections

If the mother has infections during pregnancy, they can also cause infant brain damage. Some of the infections that are known to cause damage if they are not treated quickly are:

  • Herpes
  • Rubella
  • Varicella
  • Syphilis

Mothers who suffer from preeclampsia can also be at risk for having infants with damage to the brain. However, in each of these situations, if proper care and treatment are administered as soon as possible, the damage can be avoided in most cases.


Jaundice, which is a yellowish coloring of the skin and eyes, is a common condition at birth, especially with premature babies. The condition is caused by excessive bilirubin levels in the red blood cells. When the infant is treated immediately for the condition, the coloring dissipates, and there are typically no additional problems. However, if the jaundice is left untreated, the levels of bilirubin continue to increase.

Bilirubin is toxic to infant brain cells and can cause two different conditions:

  • Kernicterus – A condition that damages the brain and causes high pitched screaming, lethargy, abnormal arching of the baby’s back and a high fever
  • Bilirubin Encephalopathy – A condition that includes the symptoms of kernicterus, as well as vomiting and impairment to the ability of the baby to feed or suck.

While there are some cases in which infant brain damage cannot be avoided, several others can be with proper care during pregnancy and delivery.


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