Need to talk? Call 1800 882 436.
It's a free call with a maternal child health nurse. *call charges may apply from your mobile

Is it an emergency? Dial 000
If you need urgent medical help, call triple zero immediately.

beginning of content

Birth injury (to the baby)

4-minute read

What is birth injury?

Having a baby in Australia is very safe, although it’s estimated that more than 1,000 babies are injured during childbirth each year. It can be very upsetting if your baby has been injured, but most birth injuries are only temporary.

Also called 'neonatal birth trauma', birth injury to a newborn baby can include many things, from bruising to nerve damage to a broken bone. Sometimes an injury occurs as a result of life-saving procedures.

About 49 in every 10,000 babies born in Australian hospitals suffer a birth injury. Here are some of the types of birth injury affecting babies.

Bruises and swelling of the scalp

Sometimes a baby can be born with minor, temporary injuries to their head or face. These include bruises, swelling (sometimes called a chignon), lumps caused by fluid under the skin (caput succedaneum) or bleeding under the skin (cephalohematomas), and blood inside the eye (subconjunctival haemorrhage).

Fractures

Fractures (breaks) can occur when there is difficulty getting a baby through the birth canal. The bone that most often breaks is the collarbone (clavicle), and this can happen when the baby's shoulder gets stuck (shoulder dystocia), or if the baby is born breech (bottom first).

Nerve damage

Nerves can be damaged during childbirth, particularly in the baby's face (which can lead to facial paralysis) and the shoulder (which can lead to brachial palsy — loss of arm movement). Usually, nerve damage in a newborn is only temporary.

Brain injury

In very rare cases, a baby can suffer a brain injury during childbirth. If the baby doesn’t get enough oxygen for a long time during labour (perinatal asphyxia), they can experience brain damage. Cerebral palsy is a type of brain damage, but only a very small percentage of cerebral palsy cases is due to complications at birth.

Bleeding on the brain

In rare cases, a baby can suffer bleeding in or around the brain during childbirth. This is more common among very premature babies, and most infants with bleeding don't have symptoms. Others may be lethargic, have difficulty feeding and/or have seizures.

What causes birth injury?

Birth injuries can occur simply because of the pressure and resistance involved in giving birth vaginally. When the baby moves through the birth canal, there's pressure on its skull and body from the mother's pelvic bones.

Large birth weight (more than 4kg) can increase the risk of injury during childbirth. There is also a greater risk if the baby is in a difficult position for labour and birth (such as the breech position). Premature babies born before 37 weeks are typically more fragile and may be injured more easily.

Other causes of birth injury to a baby include a difficult or prolonged labour, the shoulder becoming stuck in the birth canal and cephalopelvic disproportion (if the mother's pelvis isn't large enough or shaped in a way that allows for a vaginal birth).

Babies born with the assistance of forceps or ventouse (vacuum) are at higher risk of bruising, marks or swelling on the baby's head or face.

Lack of oxygen to the baby during birth could be caused by a number of things, such as problems with the umbilical cord, serious events in the mother such as haemorrhage or fever during labour, uterine rupture or abruption of the placenta (when it comes away from the uterus prematurely).

How are birth injury in babies treated?

Most birth injuries in babies are temporary. If the injury was to the soft tissue, then no treatment is normally needed — the medical team will just monitor the baby and may run tests to check for other injuries.

If there has been a fracture, your baby may need an x-ray or other imaging. The limb may need to be immobilised and some babies may need surgery.

If your baby has damaged nerves, the medical team will monitor them closely and recovery can take a few weeks. For more serious nerve damage, your baby may need special care.

Resources and support

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: May 2021


Back To Top

Need more information?

What is Birth Trauma? - Birth Trauma

The delivery of a baby is a positive event for many women, but for some it can be a mixed experience or even very negative, resulting in physical and/or

Read more on Australasian Birth Trauma Association website

Birth After Birth Trauma - Birth Trauma

This is a question that we hear often. How can I have another baby?

Read more on Australasian Birth Trauma Association website

Considerations for birthing after birth trauma - Birth Trauma

In this post we consider some important points when making decisions about birthing after a birth trauma experience.

Read more on Australasian Birth Trauma Association website

Family & Friends - Birth Trauma

If you are reading this then you may have someone close to you that has been impacted by a difficult birth experience, be it a partner, loved one or someone

Read more on Australasian Birth Trauma Association website

Physical Trauma - Birth Trauma

For many women who have suffered from physical trauma as a result of childbirth, and who are struggling to cope, is it vital that healthcare providers

Read more on Australasian Birth Trauma Association website

Birth and beyond - Ngala

Exciting times are ahead!Birth comes after lots of anticipation and preparation

Read more on Ngala website

Childbirth trauma and recovery | PANDA

While many pregnant women and their partners know birthing their baby will be hard work, very few expect labour and childbirth could be complicated.

Read more on Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australia (PANDA) website

Early Postnatal - Birth Trauma

The early postnatal period is a time of emotional change for most women. Some women may experience distress or symptoms of depression at this time if they

Read more on Australasian Birth Trauma Association website

Postpartum Trauma Disorders (e.g. PTSD) - Birth Trauma

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is one of a group of trauma and stressor-related disorders. People often associate these with war veterans, police

Read more on Australasian Birth Trauma Association website

Recovering from a traumatic birth - COPE

COPE's purpose is to prevent and improve the quality of life of those living with emotional and mental health problems that occur prior to and within the perinatal period.

Read more on COPE - Centre of Perinatal Excellence website

Call us and speak to a Maternal Child Health Nurse for personal advice and guidance.

Need further advice or guidance from our maternal child health nurses?

This information is for your general information and use only and is not intended to be used as medical advice and should not be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any medical condition, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes.

The information is not a substitute for independent professional advice and should not be used as an alternative to professional health care. If you have a particular medical problem, please consult a healthcare professional.

Except as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968, this publication or any part of it may not be reproduced, altered, adapted, stored and/or distributed in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of Healthdirect Australia.