Birth asphyxia: Causes, symptoms, and treatment

Birth asphyxia is a condition in which a baby does not receive enough oxygen before, during, or directly after birth.

In severe cases, it can cause serious complications and even be life threatening. Immediate treatment is necessary to ensure that the baby receives enough oxygen.

In this article, we look at the causes and symptoms of birth asphyxia, as well as the potential complications, treatment, and prevention.

Other names for birth asphyxia include perinatal asphyxia and neonatal asphyxia.

Birth asphyxia occurs when an infant does not receive enough oxygen when born, potentially leading to difficulty breathing. It can happen just before, during, or after birth.

Insufficient oxygen supply to the body can cause low levels of oxygen or a buildup of excess acid in the baby’s blood.

These effects can be life threatening and require immediate treatment.

In mild or moderate cases, babies may recover fully. However, in severe cases, birth asphyxia can cause permanent damage to the brain and organs or be fatal.

Birth asphyxia rates are lower in developed countries, with a rate of 2 in 1,000 births. In areas of developing countries where there is limited access to neonatal care, this rate increases up to 10 times.

A variety of factors can cause birth asphyxia. These can relate to the pregnant person or the fetus, and they include:

  • Umbilical cord prolapse: This birth complication occurs when the umbilical cord leaves the cervix before the baby.
  • Compression of the umbilical cord
  • Meconium aspiration syndrome: This syndrome occurs when a baby inhales a mixture of amniotic fluid and meconium, their first feces.
  • Premature birth: If a baby is born before 37 weeks, their lungs may not yet be fully developed, and they may be unable to breathe properly.
  • Amniotic fluid embolism: Although rare, this complication — in which amniotic fluid enters the pregnant person’s bloodstream and causes an allergic reaction — is very serious.
  • Uterine rupture: Research has shown a significant association between tears in the muscular wall of the uterus and birth asphyxia.
  • The placenta separates from the uterus: This separation can happen before the birth.
  • Infection during labor
  • Prolonged or difficult labor
  • High or low blood pressure in pregnancy
  • Anemia: In a baby with anemia, the blood cells are not carrying enough oxygen.
  • Not enough oxygen in the pregnant person’s blood: The level of oxygen may be insufficient before or during birth.

Risk factors for birth asphyxia include:

  • the pregnant person being between the ages of 20 and 25 years
  • multiple births, such as delivering twins or triplets
  • not attending prenatal care
  • low birth weight
  • abnormal position of the fetus during delivery
  • preeclampsia or eclampsia
  • history of birth asphyxia in a previous birth

Signs and symptoms of birth asphyxia can occur before, during, or just after birth. Before birth, a baby might have an abnormal fetal heart rate or low blood pH levels, which indicate excess acid.

Signs in the baby at birth can indicate a lack of oxygen or blood flow. They include:

  • unusual skin tone
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