Brain damage at birth can be caused by a variety of factors, including problems with the umbilical cord or placenta, compression and traction forces on the skull in the birth canal, exposure to certain medications during or shortly before delivery, and aspiration of amniotic fluid or meconium. In cases where a doctor is concerned about the potential for brain damage at birth, the laboring mother will be monitored carefully so steps can be taken. In some cases, treatment may resolve initial problems associated with brain injuries, while in other instances brain damage may be irreversible.
The head is the first part of the body to emerge during healthy labor, and it can be subjected to considerable force in the birth canal. The plates of the skull are designed to deform slightly to address this issue, but if a baby has an unusually large head, the birth canal is very narrow, or the labor is prolonged, brain damage at birth can occur. Issues with the umbilical cord, including cord compression and strangulation are another cause for concern because they cause asphyxiation. In some cases, the placenta fails to supply the baby with enough oxygen during delivery and this causes brain damage.
Trauma to the head can result in bleeding in or on the brain. This causes the pressure inside the skull to rise, potentially killing brain cells and causing brain damage at birth. Surgery to relieve the pressure may be needed, and some medical professionals find that cooling the skull helps to prevent a cascading series of cell deaths across the brain.
Some medications have been associated with brain damage at birth, including medications used in labor and delivery if they are not applied safely. Certain drugs may lead to decreased bloodflow and oxygenation, killing brain cells. Others may have a narcotic effect, causing the infant to breathe shallowly and slowly at first, instead of taking large breaths and getting ample amounts of oxygen. This causes brain damage by limiting the supply of oxygen to the brain.
When babies are delivered, they are quickly assessed to see how healthy they are. Signs of brain damage can include listlessness, a blue appearance, delayed movements, shallow breathing, and variations in pupil size. Over the days following birth, issues like motor impairments, difficulty tracking objects visually, and so forth may be further indicators of brain damage. The brain is a highly elastic organ, and providing interventions and treatments like physical therapy can increase the chances of recovering or adapting to the brain damage.