What Is the Difference Between a Birth Injury and a Birth Defect?

While a birth injury results from negligent behavior during or shortly after delivery, birth defects are conditions that develop while the child is in the womb before birth. Knowing the differences between these types of conditions can help determine if anyone is responsible for your child’s injuries. If someone is responsible, you may have grounds for a birth injury lawsuit.

What Is a Birth Defect?

Birth defects are illnesses or other issues affecting the infant’s health and well-being before birth. They develop in the womb and can result from many contributing factors. For example, they may result from the mother’s consumption of harmful substances, medications, or chemicals. In other cases, abnormalities of the chromosomes or genetic issues can cause complications. Other environmental factors may also lead to birth defects, including diseases, nutritional imbalances, or physical injury.

Certain unforeseeable circumstances often result in birth defects through no fault of the mother or another party, but this isn’t always the case. Sometimes medical professionals may engage in negligent behaviors that contribute to birth defects. For instance, a doctor may prescribe or administer a medication or drug that winds up causing damage to the fetus while in the womb, constituting medical negligence.

What Is a Birth Injury?

While birth defects develop in the womb before birth, birth injuries develop during labor or delivery. In some cases, birth injuries may be unavoidable when delivering the child, such as when inadvertently bruising an infant while using forceps during delivery. However, medical negligence often leads to birth injuries, making doctors and other medical staff potentially liable. 

Birth injuries can range from mild to severe, with birth injuries including everything from bruising and cuts to debilitating injuries resulting in lifelong physical or mental disability. Some birth injuries may also result in fatalities.

Most Common Birth Injuries and Defects

Many types of birth injuries and defects can develop, either due to environmental factors, negligence, or other causes.

Types of Birth Injuries

The following are some of the most common types of birth injuries that affect newborns:

  • Cerebral Palsy — A child may develop cerebral palsy due to the cutoff of oxygen or another cause of brain damage. This brain damage may occur immediately before, during, or following the delivery process. Some signs of cerebral palsy may become apparent after the child’s birth during development, including limited motor skills or cognitive abilities.
  • Bell’s Palsy — Another type of birth injury that often affects newborns is Bell’s palsy, which occurs when a facial nerve becomes paralyzed. One common cause of Bell’s palsy is the use of forceps when delivering the child, as the forceps pressing on a nerve during delivery. While many cases of Bell’s palsy heal without treatment and leave no lingering symptoms, some cases may require surgery to correct the issue.
  • Bruising and Bleeding in the Head — Some infants may experience bruising or bleeding under the scalp or even beneath the skull over the brain. This type of injury may result from pressure applied to the head during delivery, and it can cause symptoms ranging from seizures to permanent brain damage.
  • Brachial Plexus Injuries — An infant may sustain an injury to a cluster of nerves known as the brachial plexus, which is responsible for helping control the hands, arms, and shoulders. During difficult deliveries, children may sustain brachial plexus injuries as medical staff attempt to deliver the child, often when improperly maneuvering the child. Although these injuries often heal on their own, extreme cases may result in permanent nerve damage.
  • Spinal Cord Injuries — Children may also suffer spinal cord injuries if medical staff improperly handle the child or incorrectly use birthing devices during delivery. These injuries tend to be more serious and extensive, resulting in paralysis or muscle control issues.
  • Bone Fractures — The delivery process may also lead to bone fractures, often when doctors have difficulty delivering the child. The most common type of bone fracture during delivery is a broken clavicle, or collarbone, which tends to develop when the infant’s shoulder becomes stuck, a condition known as shoulder dystocia.

These and other types of birth injuries may develop. It’s possible that these injuries may occur when a doctor or another medical professional engages in negligent behavior during labor or delivery.

Types of Birth Defects

There are also many types of birth defects that can cause injuries, illnesses, or other issues that affect a child for the rest of his or her life.

Some of the most common types of birth defects include: congenital heart defects, cleft palate, cleft lip with cleft palate, ventricular septal defect, Down Syndrome, clubfoot, pulmonary stenosis and valve atresia, and limb defects including abnormalities in the arms and legs. 

Like birth injuries, it’s possible that birth defects may develop due to medical negligence on the part of doctors and other staff during pregnancy. 

Common Causes of Birth Injuries and Defects

With a better understanding of the difference between a birth injury and a birth defect, you may need to determine the specific causes of these conditions to decide if you have a case.

Causes of Birth Injuries

Birth injuries are common, with one in every 33 children developing these injuries during birth, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These injuries have many common causes that can yield mild to severe damage, which could be temporary or permanent, depending on the extent of the injury.

Some common causes of birth injuries include the following:

  • Prescribing or administering the wrong type or dosage of medication to a mother during pregnancy or the child’s birth
  • The negligent use of forceps, vacuum extraction devices, and other devices that assist with the birthing process
  • Pulling or twisting of the child’s body during the delivery process
  • Neglecting to perform a necessary cesarean section under certain conditions when it’s required
  • Neglecting to properly monitor the status of the mother or the infant

Birth injuries can also affect the mother, depending on the situation. For example, the mother may experience pelvic floor muscle tears, bruises or cuts, perineal tears, or bone fractures in the pelvis during delivery. These injuries may also result from the negligence of a doctor or another medical professional.

Causes of Birth Defects

Children may also sustain birth defects under certain conditions while developing in the womb before birth. Many factors can contribute to these defects, including chemicals or substances the mother consumes, medications, genetic issues, and the mother’s medical condition. 

Like birth injuries, birth defects may result from negligent medical staff who fail to provide the right care to mothers during pregnancy. For example, a doctor may prescribe the wrong type or dosage of medication to the mother, resulting in harm to the fetus that the mother couldn’t anticipate.

Can Physicians or Hospitals Be Held Liable?

Many birth injuries and defects result from the negligence of doctors, nursing staff, and other medical professionals. However, you must be able to prove liability in these instances to potentially recover compensation. 

Specifically, you must be able to prove four main elements when attempting to show how a medical professional or hospital was liable:

  • The medical professional owed you a duty of care at the time of the injury or defect, which you can establish by proving a doctor-patient relationship
  • A breach of duty of care that constitutes negligence or even malicious intent
  • This breach of duty caused injuries and damages to either the child or the mother

You may be able to increase your chances of successfully proving liability by looking for common signs of medical malpractice and gaining plenty of evidence showing how injuries or defects were avoidable and resulted from a breach of duty of care. 

Additionally, you may benefit from hiring a birth injury attorney to help determine your options for recovering compensation. An attorney can assess your case and determine if negligence resulted in a birth injury or defect. 

If you are able to prove medical negligence, you may be able to recover multiple types of damages. Medical malpractice pregnancy cases resulting in birth defects or birth injuries could lead to financial losses and pain and suffering that can warrant compensation. An attorney can help identify and calculate all damages involved in your case.

Potentially Build a Case Against a Negligent Professional or Facility

In the event of a birth injury or birth defect, you may be able to seek total compensation from negligent physicians or facilities in a medical malpractice case. Knowing the difference between a birth injury and a birth defect can help determine which occurred and enable you to determine how negligence may have factored into the condition. A birth injury lawyer may also be able to help prove negligence and build a case against all liable parties responsible for the injury or defect.

Chicago personal injury and workers’ compensation attorney Howard Ankin has a passion for justice and a relentless commitment to defending injured victims throughout the Chicagoland area. With decades of experience achieving justice on behalf of the people of Chicago, Howard has earned a reputation as a proven leader in and out of the courtroom. Respected by peers and clients alike, Howard’s multifaceted approach to the law and empathetic nature have secured him a spot as an influential figure in the Illinois legal system.

Years of Experience: More than 30 years
Illinois Registration Status: Active
Bar & Court Admissions: Illinois State Bar Association, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois, U.S. District Court, Central District of Illinois
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