Updated December 7, 2022

Birth Defects vs. Birth Injuries

Parents want their children to be happy and healthy. They trust doctors, nurses, and other medical staff to provide the best care at every stage of pregnancy, labor, and delivery. In a perfect world, there would be no accidents, and everything would go smoothly. Unfortunately, things don’t always go according to plan when a child is born.

Birth defects and birth injuries can turn a time that should be filled with joy into a time of fear, bewilderment, and loss. Illnesses or injuries at birth can lead to lifelong medical complications, the need for extensive care, significant expenses, and premature death. A complicated birth or delivery can result in anything from the failure of muscle and bone development to emotional or psychological problems that can impact a child’s physical development. 

Birth defects occur during pregnancy, especially in the early stages, and are often unavoidable. Birth injuries occur during labor and delivery and may result from negligence by a doctor or nurse.  Suppose a child or mother is injured during labor and delivery due to a physician’s negligence. In such a case, the injured party may be entitled to compensation. It’s crucial to distinguish between unavoidable birth defects and avoidable birth injuries.

How do you determine whether your child’s health condition is a birth defect or a birth injury? The distinction depends on how the health condition originated.

What Is a Birth Defect?

First, we need to understand the definition of a birth defect and how it contrasts with the definition of a birth injury.

Birth defects are health conditions or illnesses that develop while an infant is in the womb before delivery. The most common birth defects often have genetic causes; in other words, they develop based on the DNA a baby receives from his or her parents. Down syndrome, cleft palate, and heart murmurs are genetic birth defects that can’t be prevented.

The following is a list of the top 10 most common birth defects (according to CDC statistics):

  1. Congenital (existing from birth) heart defects
  2. Cleft lip/cleft palate (split lip or roof of the mouth)
  3. Clubfoot (one or both feet twisted or out of position)
  4. Down syndrome (caused by an extra chromosome)
  5. Limb defects (part of or all of an arm or leg doesn’t form in the womb)
  6. Gastroschisis (intestines and/or other organs develop outside the body because of a hole in the abdominal wall)
  7. Rectal or intestinal atresia/stenosis (intestinal blockages)
  8. Spina bifida (spinal defects that can cause a range of physical and intellectual disabilities)
  9. Edwards syndrome (caused by an extra chromosome)
  10. Diaphragmatic hernia (a hole in the diaphragm that allows organs to move upward in the chest, affecting a baby’s ability to breathe normally)

The genetic factors that affect the development of birth defects are often not yet well understood. Other factors (in addition to genetics) can affect your chances of having a baby with birth defects. These factors include:

  • Maternal illnesses or chronic conditions (such as diabetes or obesity)
  • Medications a mother takes during or before pregnancy
  • Smoking or drinking during pregnancy
  • Environmental factors, like exposure to radiation or toxic substances

In legal terms, the primary thing to remember about birth defects is that they emerge during pregnancy, not during labor.

What Is a Birth Injury?

Birth injuries differ from birth defects in that they happen while a mother is in labor or in the process of delivering a baby. Minor birth injuries are fairly common, and many resolve on their own in a few weeks or months, often without treatment. Some birth injuries require treatment but result in no long-term effects because the infant fully recovers. Examples of birth injuries that fall into this category include:

  • Scratches or bruises on the scalp (from instruments used during birth or the passage through the birth canal)
  • Bleeding under the scalp (some types of bleeding heal on their own; others may require prompt medical intervention)
  • Skull fractures (can occur during normal birth; these usually heal quickly without treatment)
  • Fractured bones (can occur during normal birth; usually affects the collar bone, arm bones, or leg bones), and
  • Nerve injuries due to pressure on a nerve during delivery (some resolve on their own in a few months; others are more serious).

Although birth injuries can occur in any birth,  several factors can increase the likelihood of birth injuries. These include:

  • An improperly positioned baby (breech, shoulder-first, etc.)
  • Umbilical cord around a baby’s neck
  • Premature birth
  • Delivery of an extra-large baby
  • Delivery of a baby who is large compared to the size of the mother’s birth canal

Some complications during birth are unavoidable, but many birth injuries are preventable. A baby can be hurt from an incorrect delivery method, such as continuing with a vaginal birth when the circumstances call for a cesarean section, or from the improper or excessive use of tools, such as forceps or extraction vacuums.

Some birth injuries—including preventable birth injuries—can lead to serious problems. Examples of birth injuries that fall into this category include:

Some of these injuries are obvious immediately, but some might not manifest until later in a child’s life.

Birth injuries are not limited to injuries to a baby; they also include injuries to a baby’s mother.

Distinctions Can Get Complicated

Now that we’ve clarified the differences between birth defects and birth injuries, we can take a look at the legal implications of these terms and consider when legal action may be possible.

If a birth defect can’t be prevented but a birth injury can, then it seems like only a birth injury can result in medical malpractice. Any defect or injury to a child is traumatic in the eyes of the parents; in the eyes of the law,  only cases of medical malpractice are eligible for compensation. However, there are instances in which medical malpractice may apply to a birth defect and instances in which it may not apply to a birth injury.

First, although many birth defects have genetic causes, other factors may be involved. For instance, if a medication causes a birth defect, a doctor can be found negligent for prescribing the medication if they knew the risks. Second, although many birth injuries are preventable, some result from the normal, natural birth process and don’t indicate any negligence on the part of the health care workers involved.

Let’s consider a few scenarios to understand in more detail when there may be a case of medical malpractice, whether with a birth defect or a birth injury.

First, some genetic defects are treatable in utero, that is, while a baby is still in the womb. If a doctor does not properly diagnose a treatable condition, that could be considered negligence.

Second, let’s consider the prevention of birth injuries. When a doctor looks at a chart or ultrasound and misses a crucial detail, a birth injury can result, caused by the doctor’s negligence. For instance, a doctor should recognize and make adjustments for risk factors for birth injuries such as an extra-large baby, a birth canal that’s too small for a baby, an umbilical cord wrapped around a baby’s neck, or a placental abruption. If a doctor misses such a detail, the doctor may have caused a serious, preventable birth injury.

Health care personnel must meet the established standard of care re, whether it’s prenatal care or care given during labor and delivery. If they don’t, they may be liable for medical malpractice—regardless of whether it’s related to a birth defect or a birth injury.

Birth defects and birth injuries are causes of grief for parents. Although it’s important to understand the distinctions between birth defects and birth injuries, in either case, a lawyer will examine the evidence to determine whether there was medical malpractice on the part of health care providers.

Contact a Birth Injury Attorney Today

If you believe your health care providers caused your child to become injured or failed to prevent a tragedy, keep detailed records of all doctor’s visits, tests, diagnoses, and treatments. Consider consulting with another physician to get their opinion on the treatment your child received. We also urge you to contact the Indianapolis birth injury attorneys of Wilson Kehoe Winingham. The lawyers at WKW can help you get the compensation you deserve. Call 317.920.6400 or fill out an online contact form for a free, no-obligation case evaluation.

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