If medical mistakes are made during childbirth, it can result in injuries – both to the mother and the baby. If these injuries could have been prevented with better medical care, there will be grounds for a medical negligence claim.
Below we explore some common birth injuries. However, this is by no means an exhaustive list. If you or your child has suffered harm and you think medical mistakes are to blame, please contact our medical negligence solicitors to discuss your next steps.
Injuries to the mother
A mother can sustain injuries before, during and after the birth. Some are considered medical emergencies, whereas others are only detected weeks (or even months) after the birth, when symptoms begin to appear.
Some of the most common birth injuries that are experienced by mothers include:
Missed perineal tears
Perineal tears can happen during a vaginal delivery. The fact that a perineal tear occurs is not necessarily negligent, unless it arises due to a poorly managed labour. For example, it might be that the baby is known to be large. If so, medical practitioners should proceed with a caesarean section, rather than allow a mother to endure a difficult – and potentially risky – labour.
It will also be considered negligent if the perineal tear is not diagnosed and repaired shortly after the delivery. Timely treatment greatly increases the chance of a full recovery, particularly for more severe tears, which are classified as third and fourth degree tears. Otherwise, a woman may experience ongoing pain and incontinence.
Often, a missed perineal tear is only discovered in the weeks or months following the birth, when a woman begins to experience symptoms such as faecal urgency. At this point, a repair may not be effective. That is why medical practitioners should examine a woman thoroughly after a vaginal delivery.
A failure to perform this examination, or a failure to detect a perineal tear during the examination, will amount to medical negligence. There could also be grounds for a claim if a repair is poorly performed.
Poorly repaired episiotomy
An episiotomy is when the perineum is deliberately cut during a vaginal birth to aid the delivery of an unborn baby. The episiotomy should then be stitched following the birth by an appropriately trained professional. If the repair is not carried out to a sufficient standard, it can cause ongoing pain for the mother, potentially leading to a successful compensation claim.
Perineal tears and repaired episiotomies can become infected. If so, the infection must be quickly diagnosed and treated. A delay will cause a significant setback in the mother’s recovery, and may adversely impact the eventual outcome.
Maternal sepsis is another type of infection that medical professionals must watch out for during and after birth. It is a life-threatening illness and is one of the leading causes of maternal death. The care provided may be deemed substandard if there are delays in diagnosing and treating maternal sepsis.
Internal organ damage
The internal organs are at risk of injury during a caesarean section. There are practices in place to minimise this risk. For instance, the bladder must be clamped to enable safe access to the uterus. If any damage does occur, the injury must be quickly spotted and repaired, or the consequences could be serious.
If the internal organs are damaged during a caesarean section due to poor surgical practices, or if the injury is not diagnosed and treated within a reasonable amount of time, there could be a case of negligence.
Swabs are routinely used during medical procedures, including caesarean sections and perineal repairs. The swabs should be counted before, during and after the procedure. This ensures none are left inside the patient. If a patient is discharged with a swab still inside of them, it is known as a retained swab. This is not acceptable and should never happen in a medical setting.
Pre-eclampsia is when there is a problem with the placenta during pregnancy, resulting in high blood pressure. This can damage the organs, particularly the liver and kidneys. It is therefore vital that the condition is diagnosed and monitored. If the patient’s condition is serious, the labour should be quickly induced or an emergency caesarean section carried out.
A failure to diagnose, monitor and treat pre-eclampsia can have drastic consequences for both the mother and baby. If either suffers harm because of medical mistakes, there could be grounds for a claim.
Placental abruption is when the placenta starts to come away from the wall of the uterus. If the abruption is minor or the baby is very premature, it may be acceptable to monitor the patient in hospital. Otherwise, the baby must be delivered straightaway, probably via an emergency c-section. If medical professionals fail to take the correct course of medical action, causing either mother or baby harm, the level of care may be considered substandard.
Injuries to the baby
A baby can be harmed by medical mistakes that are made during pregnancy, and during the birth itself. Some will be immediately apparent following the birth, whereas others may only be diagnosed once the child shows developmental abnormalities.
Some of the most common birth injuries that are experienced by babies include:
Cerebral palsy is a lifelong condition in which the brain is damaged, in turn leading to mobility issues. Cerebral palsy does not always occur as a result of negligence; sometimes it happens because of a congenital malformation of the brain. However, there are occasions when medical mistakes are directly to blame for a baby’s brain injury. This might happen if:
- The labour is mismanaged
- The baby is deprived of oxygen
- The baby is dropped or suffers an injury from the use of forceps/ventouse
- Medical practitioners fail to act on signs of foetal distress – e.g. abnormal CTG traces
- A c-section is not carried out when it should have been – e.g. following placental abruption
- Drugs are negligently administered during labour
Erbs palsy/brachial plexus injuries
Erbs palsy happens when a baby’s head or arm is forcefully pulled during delivery, damaging the brachial plexus nerves that enable movement and sensation in the arms. As a result, one arm may be partially or completely paralysed. The prognosis depends on the extent of damage that has been sustained.
Erbs palsy may amount to medical negligence if the injury could have been avoided with better medical care. For instance, it may be that medical practitioners used forceps too forcefully, or failed to perform a c-section even though the baby was very large, or the mother was experiencing a long and difficult birth.
Shoulder dystocia is very similar to Erbs palsy because it can lead to brachial plexus injuries, as well as fractures and asphyxia (a lack of oxygen). It happens when the baby’s shoulder gets stuck inside the mother’s pelvis.
Shoulder dystocia claims usually arise because the issue was not quickly spotted and acted upon during labour, causing either the mother or baby to suffer complications. Or, medical practitioners may be negligent if the mother was known to be at risk of shoulder dystocia, but they failed to offer a caesarean section. This might be the case if the baby is very large for its gestational age, or the mother has a history of shoulder dystocia.
Injuries from ventouse or forceps
A mother may require an assisted vaginal delivery, whereby forceps or a ventouse (vacuum device) is used in the final stages of the birth. If an assisted delivery is performed without the correct level of skill and care, it can damage the baby’s head and possibly even cause a brain injury.
If the attending midwife or doctor is found to have to exerted unnecessary force, resulting in cerebral palsy or Erb’s palsy, he/she could be considered negligent. There may also be grounds for a claim if the assisted delivery caused the mother/baby an injury because it was carried out by someone without the necessary training, or if the wrong instrument is used.
Birth asphyxia is when the baby’s brain does not receive a sufficient supply of oxygen, causing a degree of brain damage. This may lead to a diagnosis of cerebral palsy or other long-term health complaints. In some cases, it will be fatal.
Birth asphyxia can happen as a result of a poorly managed labour, whereby medical practitioners failed to perform an emergency caesarean section, despite signs of foetal distress. This distress might occur because of a long and difficult birth, shoulder dystocia, the use of drugs to induce labour, or other complications. If birth asphyxia occurs because of medical mistakes, it could amount to negligence.
There are other traumatic injuries that can be sustained by a baby during birth. These include fractures and broken bones, Bell’s palsy and bleeding on the brain. If these injuries occur because of a mismanaged labour, or because of poor medical practices, there could be grounds for a negligence claim.
Poorly managed gestational diabetes
Gestational diabetes is when a mother develops diabetes for the duration of her pregnancy. Gestational diabetes is known to increase the risk of pre-eclampsia, placental abruption and macrosomia (when a baby is large for its gestational age).
The condition needs to be diagnosed and monitored carefully throughout the pregnancy. It must also be taken into consideration during the birth itself, as a c-section may be preferred to limit potential complications. A failure to do so could lead to trauma (both for the mother and baby), brain damage and still-birth.
Talk to our medical negligence solicitors
The birth of a baby should be a joyous occasion. Sadly, medical errors can turn this life-changing moment into a period of confusion, pain and sadness. If this has happened to you, please contact our medical negligence solicitors to discuss your options. We can assess the care you were given, confirming whether or not you have been the victim of medical negligence.
If so, you are entitled to claim compensation. This cannot change what happened during the pregnancy and birth, but it can help to support you and your family. This will be very important if your ability to work has been affected, or your child requires specialist medical care.
For a no obligation enquiry with a specialist medical negligence solicitor, please complete our online enquiry form, or phone us on 01 872 3143 today.
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