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Understanding the difference between a birth defect and a birth injury can be difficult. Because the two can have similar symptoms, how do you know if your child is showing signs of a condition that was present before birth or if he or she is suffering from the results of a traumatic delivery?
Birth defects, also referred to as congenital anomalies, are conditions a baby develops during gestation. These abnormalities can affect body functions, physical appearance, or both. The cause of birth defects is not always known. Some are linked to genetic errors, meaning a baby has a defective gene. Others are thought to be the result of environmental factors. For instance, if a pregnant woman comes into contact with harmful substances such as cigarette smoke, chemicals, or certain medications, there is a risk of interfering with the healthy development of the baby.
Some defects can be seen the moment a baby is born. Physical deformities, for example, can include a cleft palate in which the baby’s mouth is formed incorrectly. Other birth defects may not be as obvious because they can exist internally. A heart defect that causes impaired blood flow throughout the body may not be apparent right away. Birth defects can also occur on a chemical level, as in phenylketonuria (PKU). Infants with PKU suffer from toxic blood levels of an amino acid called phenylalanine (an important compound found in the body). A birth defect such as Down’s syndrome is a genetic condition in which a baby has an extra copy of a chromosome, resulting in specific physical traits and intellectual disabilities.
Unlike birth defects, birth injuries occur as the result of a traumatic birth process. Serious injury to a baby during labor and delivery may permanently alter the brain, nerves, muscles, lungs, or other body systems. Two of the most common birth injuries include hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy (HIE) and brachial plexus injury.
HIE is a form of brain damage that occurs when an infant suffers from a severe lack of oxygen. In serious cases, the blood and oxygen supply to the baby’s brain is cut off for a dangerous amount of time, causing devastating, lifelong effects. HIE can result from a nurse or doctor’s failure to recognize signs of distress for the fetus during labor.
A brachial plexus injury means there has been damage to the brachial plexus nerves of the spinal cord. Depending on the nature and extent of the damage done to the nerves, injuries can occur to the baby’s shoulder, arm, and hand, resulting in varying degrees of impaired motor function. Brachial plexus injuries frequently occur when the baby’s shoulder becomes stuck at the time of delivery, a condition known as a shoulder dystocia. A brachial plexus injury can result from a doctor or midwife’s failure to appreciate the likely size of the baby during the pregnancy, and from the use of excessive force in the delivery of the baby by the delivering physician or midwife after a shoulder dystocia has occurred.
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