What's the Difference Between a Birth Defect and a Birth Injury?

Newborn with Birth Defect or Birth Injury

At the end of nine months of pregnancy, all you want is a healthy baby. If, instead, your baby is born with serious health issues, it can be frightening and devastating. In that moment, you just want to know that your baby will be okay. In the days and weeks that follow, you may begin to ask yourself why your child is sick, and if your child's illness could have been avoided. When you begin to unpack these questions, it is important to understand the difference between a birth defect and a birth injury.

Both birth injuries and birth defects can have a profound impact on your child's life, and on yours. In many ways, your focus will be on meeting those needs rather than identifying what caused them, but the source of your child's illness or disability is important for two reasons: first, knowing what caused it may help deal with the effects, and second, knowing the source of your child's problem can help you pursue compensation to treat it.

What is a Birth Defect?

A birth defect is an issue that arises during a baby's development in the uterus. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about one in every 33 babies in the United States is born with a birth defect. Most of these arise early in development, within the first trimester of pregnancy. While some birth defects are relatively minor and/or easily treated or corrected, or even harmless, many are serious and require extensive medical treatment. About 20 percent of infant deaths in the United States are caused by birth defects, making birth defects the leading cause of infant death.

Birth defects generally fall into one of two categories: structural and developmental. Structural defects involve a malformed or missing body part, such as cleft palate, spina bifida, or clubfoot. Developmental birth defects, also called functional defects, cause a bodily part or system to not function properly. Examples are cystic fibrosis, sickle-cell disease, and Down Syndrome. Developmental birth defects may affect intelligence, neurological development, or metabolism (body chemistry).

Birth defects may be caused by a variety of factors, including:

  • Genetics
  • Exposure to certain chemicals or medications in utero
  • Maternal drug or alcohol use
  • Infection during pregnancy, such as measles or rubella
  • Mother has a pre-existing medical condition, such as diabetes
  • A combination of the above

Depending on the nature of a birth defect, it may be detected by prenatal testing, discovered at birth, or discovered sometime after birth. Risk factors for birth defects include maternal age of 35 or older; a family history of genetic disorders or birth defects; inadequate prenatal care; use of certain medications; and untreated bacterial or viral infections, including sexually transmitted ones. Unfortunately, many, if not most, birth defects have no clear-cut cause and may be due to a combination of factors that are never identified. Many birth defects are unavoidable, but failure of a doctor to timely detect and treat certain birth defects may constitute medical malpractice.

What is a Birth Injury?

Like birth defects, birth injuries may cause lifelong disability and medical challenges. Unlike birth defects, birth injuries occur at or around the time of birth, and are physical injuries associated with the birth process. Birth injuries often involve:

  • Prematurity, as babies born before 37 weeks may have fragile bodies that are more prone to injury
  • Large babies (over 4 kilograms, or nearly 9 pounds)
  • Mother's pelvis is too small
  • Difficult labor
  • Prolonged labor
  • Breech presentation or other abnormal positioning of the baby

A birth injury may be caused or worsened by negligent medical care, for instance, failure to properly monitor for signs of fetal distress or allowing labor to go on too long. Other causes of birth injury include incorrect use of forceps or vacuum extractors; pulling or turning the infant during delivery in such a way as to cause injury; and failure to perform a C-section when needed.

Common birth injuries include:

  • Cerebral palsy
  • Fractures
  • Skull injuries
  • Birth hypoxia or ischemia
  • Shoulder dystocia
  • Injury to spinal cord
  • Bell’s palsy
  • Erb’s palsy
  • Brachial plexus palsy
  • Damage to internal organs

Not all health problems are someone's fault, of course. But if your child's health issue is due to a negligent act on the part of someone else, that party should be held to account. Early in your child's life, you may be grieving the loss of the healthy child you expected to have, and trying to help your child live as normal a life as possible. Recovering money from a responsible party may be the last thing on your mind.

Unfortunately, raising a child with disabilities and giving him or her the best shot at a good life is unimaginably expensive. By the time this reality hits home, it may be too late to make a claim against the responsible party, leaving you and your child to bear the financial burden alone. For the sake of your child's future, you should consult with an experienced Oregon medical malpractice attorney to discuss whether your child may be entitled to compensation.

If you have questions about whether your child's health condition was caused by a preventable birth injury, we invite you to contact our law office.

Categories: Medical Malpractice