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What Every Parent Should Know About Their Baby and Brain Injuries

If you are concerned that your baby has suffered a brain injury, you probably feel overwhelmed with worry for the health of your baby—and probably have a lot of questions.

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This guide to infant brain injuries is intended to help you answer those questions and alleviate your worry, while also providing some assistance regarding information about brain injuries in babies, caregiving for babies with brain injuries, support for siblings and families, and resources for financial questions and support.

In this section, we discuss the types and causes of brain injuries in infants, and what every parent of a baby with a brain injury should know.
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What are the Causes of Brain Damage in Infants?

Brain damage in infants can be caused by many factors or injuries, typically occurring during childbirth, ranging from physical injuries and physical trauma, to “acquired” injuries that occur internally, such as oxygen deprivation or asphyxia.

Traumatic brain injuries in infants occur by physical force, when there is an outside physical strike or pressure on the infant’s body—typically on its head and brain. This type of physical trauma can occur during childbirth; for example, if the baby’s skull is stuck in the birth canal, or with the use of birthing instruments, such as forceps.

Acquired injuries are those that occur internally inside the infant, and acquired brain injuries in infants occur inside the skull. One of the common types of acquired brain injuries in infants is a deprivation of oxygen to the baby’s brain, which can cause asphyxiation. Asphyxiation could be caused by factors that are not necessarily preventable, such as an illness of the mother. Other times, acquired injuries are incidents occurring during childbirth, such as issues with the baby’s umbilical cord and the supply of oxygen, oxygen supply in the placenta, or physical pressure on the baby’s brain in the birth canal preventing the proper flow of oxygen to the baby’s brain.

Sometimes, the causes of these brain injuries—whether physical trauma or acquired—are unforeseen and not preventable. These types of brain injuries can be caused by issues with the mother’s health, genetic issues, and unanticipated complications during childbirth. However, in some situations, the brain injury would not have occurred but for the decisions and actions of the medical caregivers, including doctors, midwives and nurses. For example, if the caregiver fails to notice that the baby is being deprived of oxygen in the birth canal, or the caregiver applies excessive physical force to the baby’s skull. In these situations, the brain injury could have been prevented, and the medical caregiver’s actions could be considered negligence.

What are the Symptoms of Brain Damage in Infants?

The symptoms of infant brain damage can range from mild, temporary symptoms to severe, life-long issues. The symptoms can range from developmental delays and mild cognitive impairments to severe cognitive impairment, seizures, and cerebral palsy. Sometimes the symptoms are so mild that they are not even noticed by the pediatrician or the baby’s parents, or the onset of the symptoms is delayed and not immediately recognized. Other times, the symptoms are obvious from the moment the infant was born.

Symptoms of Infant Brain Damage: Immediately After Birth.

When the symptoms of infant brain damage are immediately recognizable after birth, they are either recognized physically or behaviorally. In most cases, when brain damage is apparent immediately after birth, it is a more severe case of infant brain damage.

Immediate physical symptoms can include a large forehead, a malformed spine or skull, a small skull, unusual or distorted facial features of the baby, and unfocused eyes. Sometimes, immediate symptoms include seizures. In other cases, the baby can show behavioral issues, such as excessive crying and discomfort.

Later Symptoms of Infant Brain Damage: Your Baby’s Cognitive and Physical Development

In other cases, the symptoms of infant brain damage are not immediately apparent, or the onset of the symptoms is delayed. In most cases (but not all), these delayed or not immediately apparent symptoms are related to less severe brain injuries.

However, as the baby grows and with time, it may start to exhibit symptoms signaling the presence of a brain injury. These symptoms can include irritability, fussiness or excessive crying, and sleep issues. Other times, the baby may show sensitivity to light or trouble focusing its eyes. In some cases, the baby shows physical issues, such as tremors, spasms, and seizures. Later onset symptoms can even include the development of paralysis.

Developmental issues can also appear later, as the baby grows from an infant into a toddler, showing as both physical, developmental issues, and cognitive developmental issues.

Physical development issues can include delayed sitting, delayed crawling, delaying standing and delayed walking. These physical issues could signify the existence of a brain injury.

The baby may also exhibit cognitive developmental issues, such as disorientation, inability to focus its eyes, and the development of language. As the baby grows into a toddler, cognitive developmental issues can inhibit the baby’s learning the use of tools, learning to feed itself, learning to speak, and other similar developmental milestones of toddlers and children.

Cerebral Palsy: What are the Symptoms?

One condition that results from infant brain damage is called cerebral palsy. Cerebral palsy is a condition in which the baby or child shows movement disorder. Symptoms of cerebral palsy can vary from child to child; however, typical symptoms of cerebral palsy include:
  • Weak muscles
  • Variation in muscle tone, such as stiffness or feeling “floppy”
  • Lack of muscle coordination
  • Tremors in the baby’s muscles and body
  • Abnormally slow, writhing movements
  • Vision impairment
  • Hearing impairment
  • Issues swallowing, such as drooling
  • Difficulty feeding and eating
  • Delays and issues with language and speaking
  • Favoring one side of the body, such as reaching with only one hand or dragging one leg while crawling
  • Physical developmental issues, such as delayed sitting, rolling over, crawling, standing and walking
  • Cognitive impairments in the baby’s thinking and reasoning skills
  • Seizures
Cerebral palsy is caused either by abnormal development (during pregnancy) or by physical injury to the baby’s brain, typically during childbirth or shortly after birth. Only about 2% of babies with cerebral palsy are believed to have inherited the condition genetically; however, in the remaining cases, the specific cause of the cerebral palsy is unknown. These causes can include:
  • premature birth
  • the birth of twins
  • infections during pregnancy, such as rubella
  • a particularly difficult or traumatic delivery
  • lack of oxygen to the brain related to a difficult labor or delivery
  • breech birth
  • head trauma during delivery, for example in the birth canal
  • head trauma by medical care, for example by the use of forceps to assist delivery
Although there is no cure for cerebral palsy, it can be treated with physical therapy, speech therapy, occupational and movement therapy, some medications and even corrective surgery. Surgery can include trimming of overactive nerves (which may cause muscle tightening or spasms), or even surgery to encourage the lengthening and growth of muscles.

The silver lining with cerebral palsy is that it is not a “progressive disorder,” so the baby’s brain damage does not worsen over time. However, the symptoms related to the brain damage can become more severe as the baby grows into a child and establishes bone and muscle systems.

Diagnosis: Does My Baby Have a Brain Injury?

As you can tell from the information above, the causes and symptoms of brain damage in babies can vary widely. Sometimes, the injury is severe and immediately apparent; other times, the brain injury is less noticeable and becomes apparent over time as the baby grows.

Whenever the symptoms appear, however, you should reach out to your pediatrician who can diagnose brain damage with tools including MRI imaging and CT scans. Pediatricians also use a tool called the Glasgow Coma Scale to evaluate your child for potential brain injury and neurological issues. Experts in cerebral palsy recommend that the earlier the diagnosis can be made in your child’s life, the better, so that your child may begin receiving appropriate treatment and care.

Alongside the diagnosis of a medical physician, you may consider legal support. If the cause of your baby’s birth injury was the negligent decisions or actions (or inaction) of the medical provider, then you may want to seek legal advice regarding a malpractice suit. Negligent medical care could have been caused by the obstetrician or another medical doctor, the midwife, or nurses. Not all infant birth injuries were caused by negligence that supports a malpractice lawsuit; however, if you believe medical negligence was an issue, a lawsuit could provide compensation to assist with the ongoing treatment and care your brain injury child requires.