Amniotic fluid serves a critical purpose when a fetus is developing in its mother’s uterus. This fluid cushions the growing baby against bumps and blows to the mother’s body. It promotes muscular and skeletal development. And, when swallowed by the fetus in the womb, amniotic fluid even helps the baby’s gastrointestinal tract to develop.
Unfortunately, if the baby inhales amniotic fluid during the birth process, serious problems can result. Accidentally taking a substance into the windpipe or lungs is called aspiration, and amniotic fluid aspiration can cause grave complications if not promptly detected and treated.
While all cases of amniotic fluid aspiration pneumonia are a result of amniotic fluid aspiration, not all cases of amniotic fluid aspiration will develop into pneumonia. Amniotic fluid aspiration is also called meconium aspiration. Meconium, a black, tarry substance, is a baby’s first stool, usually passed shortly after birth.
Sometimes, however, a baby passes stool before it is born, and that stool—meconium—makes its way into the amniotic fluid. As an infant draws its first breaths, it may aspirate amniotic fluid tainted with meconium, and that meconium can become embedded deep within the baby’s lungs, leading to breathing difficulties and serious infections, such as pneumonia.
Medical staff can diagnose the aspiration of meconium by checking the amniotic fluid at birth for the presence of meconium. A chest x-ray may also be called for. A child who has aspirated meconium may have difficulty breathing, or take rapid breaths; make gurgling noises when breathing; visibly strain during breathing or appear to have a bloated chest; or have discoloration of the skin and fingernails.
Aspiration of meconium happens only in a small number of births, and it is even more rare for newborns to suffer complications from pneumonia. When it does happen, it can be life-threatening. Meconium, like any stool, contains bacteria which, if not promptly treated, can cause pneumonia to develop. In some cases, pneumonia may be caused by viral infection, but the majority of pneumonia cases in newborn infants are bacterial.
If a baby is suspected to have aspirated amniotic fluid containing meconium, they may be given antibiotics. Because a newborn infant may have an underdeveloped immune system, antibiotics can be an important support. If needed, medical staff can put the baby on a ventilator to reduce the burden on the infant’s lungs and to stabilize breathing. Oxygen may also need to be administered. In the most severe cases, the baby may need extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) to assist or replace lung function.
It is sometimes possible to prevent aspiration of meconium-tainted amniotic fluid. For instance, if medical staff suspect that the amniotic fluid contains meconium, they might order amnioinfusion during labor, which allows meconium-stained fluid to be drained out. A Caesarian section (C-section) may also be appropriate under certain circumstances.
There’s a lot going on when you are in labor and giving birth, and you probably weren’t focused on your doctor’s every action. However, if your baby aspirated amniotic fluid, and especially if your baby developed pneumonia as a result, you may be wondering if your doctor didn’t do something they could have, and whether their conduct might even be medical malpractice.
It is worth noting that a bad outcome does not necessarily mean that there was medical malpractice. That said, there are often things that medical professionals can and should do, but that they fail to do, leading to an injury.
Medical malpractice requires four things:
So if your doctor failed to do something that most doctors would have, like ordering amnioinfusion if amniotic fluid aspiration was suspected, detect signs that an infant might have aspirated fluid, or follow up appropriately on a baby who had aspirated amniotic fluid, malpractice may be an issue.
If your baby suffered ill effects from aspirating amniotic fluid, it may be worth consulting with an experienced medical malpractice attorney. Particularly if your child’s injury was severe, you may be entitled to compensation for their injury. We invite you to contact our law office to schedule a complimentary consultation.
The information in this blog post is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to be legal advice. You should not make a decision whether or not to contact a qualified medical malpractice attorney based upon the information in this blog post. No attorney-client relationship is formed nor should any such relationship be implied. If you require legal advice, please consult with a competent medical malpractice attorney licensed to practice in your jurisdiction.
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