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What is Birth Asphyxia?

By J.M. Willhite
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Birth asphyxia, also called asphyxia neonatorum, is the inability of an infant to establish regular respiration following birth. The condition results from an inadequate supply of oxygen to an infant while in the womb or during the delivery process. It is considered a medical emergency and immediate steps must be taken to establish respiration to prevent long-term damage or death.

Several factors that may take place in utero and during the delivery process can lead to this problem. The mother's health during pregnancy and delivery directly affect the overall health of the fetus, and physiological factors inside the womb may also contribute to the development of birth asphyxia. Once the child is born, the risk of asphyxia does not diminish until regular respiration is established.

While in the womb, the fetus’ first stool that is passed, known as meconium, can block the fetus’ airways, impeding his or her ability to breathe. A compression of the umbilical cord can also result in restricted blood flow that interferes with the ability to breathe properly. Placental abruption occurs when there is a premature separation of the placenta from the uterus, which may lead to asphyxia. The mother's condition prior to and during delivery also directly affects the welfare of the baby.

A mother who has high blood pressure during pregnancy may experience poor placenta function, which can hinder proper oxygen production. If the mother is experiencing anesthesia-induced respiratory issues during delivery, she may have insufficient oxygen in her blood that directly impacts the fetus’ oxygen levels. Instances where the mother has low blood pressure during the delivery process may also result in a reduction of oxygen.

When an infant is born with low oxygen levels, he or she may have low blood pressure and heart rate. Decreased oxygen levels not only threaten the infant’s ability to breathe independently, but may affect organ functionality. It limits blood flow to the organs and tissues, which can hinder proper cell function. Organs commonly affected by lowered oxygen levels include the brain, lungs, heart, and blood vessels.

An infant born with low blood pressure, low blood cell count, or severe anemia may experience difficulty with independent respiration. If the child is in shock following delivery, his or her body may have low oxygen levels. A child born with lung or heart complications may also have an increased risk of experiencing symptoms associated with birth asphyxia.

Each infant experiences asphyxia-related symptoms differently. Prior to delivery, a fetus may have highly acidic blood or an abnormal heart rate. Following birth, an infant with a low heart rate and shallow or weak breathing may be oxygen-deprived. If he or she has a bluish skin color, also known as cyanosis, or poor reflexes, it is likely due to birth asphyxia. A diagnosis of asphyxia is confirmed by the administration of basic tests which observe the infant's heartbeat, color, respiration, and reflexes.

This condition is considered a medical emergency. If the placenta is found to be delivering inadequate oxygen, an emergency delivery will be conducted with either induced labor and forceps or Cesarean section. When a newborn exhibits signs of asphyxia following delivery, the attending medical professional will check the infant’s airways for any obstruction. If none is found, assisted ventilation will be administered with extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), which takes over the infant's lung function. An infant’s prognosis depends on how long he or she was deprived of oxygen.

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Discussion Comments
By anon340616 — On Jul 04, 2013

My daughter had the same problem at birth but is nine months old now and not crawling. Is there any hope?

By blackDagger — On Apr 10, 2011

My sister was born with this condition. Her birth was premature, and she was actually thought to be dead at the time of delivery. She did remain in the hospital for some time (about a month, I think) after she was born. However, now she is a perfectly normal thirty-six year old woman.

By tlcJPC — On Apr 10, 2011

@Nick - First of all, let me say that I am so sorry for your loss. As a mother of two, I simply can't imagine how hard it must be for you. To give you a few answers, there are several ways that a diagnosis of asphyxia at birth can be made. One is through the Apgar score. If this is very low (between zero and three) for five minutes after birth, it is a good indication that there is oxygen deprivation. Also, high acid levels in the blood indicate asphyxia. There are other things that also can lead to this diagnosis. Also, there are chances of survival. I think these are largely dependent on individual cases. Again, my heart goes out to you.

By anon140328 — On Jan 07, 2011

We have lost a baby due to the condition described above. It concerns me when doctors cannot diagnose this condition. What does it take to get a correct diagnosis? Are there chances of survival in early diagnosis? --Nick

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