Birth asphyxia, which occurs when a baby’s brain and other organs don’t get enough oxygen before, during, or right after birth, can result in serious, long-term health problems including brain damage.
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The Lasting Effects of Birth Asphyxia
Oxygen deprivation at birth, also known as birth asphyxia, can cause serious, long-lasting lung, heart, muscle, and brain damage for a child. Lack of oxygen at birth typically shows up with a low Apgar score, a system that doctors use to rate a baby’s skin color, reflexes, muscle tone, breathing, and heart rate at birth. Apgar scores range from 0 to 10, and a very low Apgar score (0 to 3) that lasts longer than 5 minutes may be a sign of birth asphyxia. The degree of harm to the baby depends on: the amount of time the baby lacked oxygen; the baby’s level of oxygen at birth; and how quickly proper treatment is administered.
According to research studies, even mild oxygen deprivation at birth can have long-lasting effects. In addition to lung, heart, and muscle problems, it can cause seizures, learning disabilities, and behavioral problems. Studies show that babies who don’t get enough oxygen at birth are at greater risk of developing disabilities including epilepsy, cerebral palsy, and long-term intellectual disabilities. In studies that followed affected babies with mild and severe oxygen deprivation for five years, results showed higher rates of lower IQ scores, poor memory, delayed speech, attention deficit disorder, autism, and dyspraxia. Premature babies who suffer oxygen deprivation are especially vulnerable to developmental delays, cerebral palsy, and attention deficit disorder (ADHD).
Babies who suffer severe birth asphyxia often require continual health monitoring and medical intervention that includes:
- Mechanical ventilation (a breathing machine)
- Respiratory therapy
- Blood pressure medications
- Seizure medications
- Intravenous fluids and nutrition
Research shows that therapeutic hypothermia is a possible treatment for babies who suffer brain damage from birth asphyxia. The treatment, also referred to as therapeutic cooling, involves cooling the baby’s body temperature to about 91 degrees F (33.5 degrees C) for up to 72 hours. This is shown to protect the baby’s brain from damage during the second stage of asphyxia when normal blood flow and oxygen are restored to the brain if treatment is started within 6 hours after birth.