In this section :

Birth Trauma: Introduction

Overview and Implications

Birth injuries are those sustained during the birth process, which includes labor and delivery. They may be avoidable, or they may be unavoidable and occur despite skilled and competent obstetric care, as in an especially hard or prolonged labor or with an abnormal presentation (Prazad et al., 2019).

Since 1981, because of refinements in obstetric techniques and the increased use of cesarean deliveries over difficult vaginal deliveries, a dramatic decline has occurred in birth injuries as a cause of neonatal death. Statistics reported for 2013-2014 did not cite birth injury as one of the 10 leading causes of postnatal death. Despite a reduction in related mortality rates, birth injuries still represent an important source of neonatal morbidity and neonatal intensive care unit admissions. Of particular concern are severe intracranial injuries after vacuum-assisted and forceps vaginal delivery and failed attempts at instrument-assisted vaginal delivery. Although many injuries are mild and self-limited, others are serious and potentially lethal (Prazad et al., 2019).

The incidence of neonatal injury resulting from difficult or traumatic deliveries is decreasing due to increasing use of cesarean delivery in place of difficult versions, vacuum extractions, or mid- or high-forceps deliveries. There is an increased risk of trauma when the infant is large for gestational age which is sometimes associated with maternal diabetes, or when there is a breech or other abnormal presentation, especially in a primipara (Stavis, 2019).

On the basis of frequencies alone, some of the major findings of Pressler's research, Classification of major newborn birth injuries, can be highlighted. For example, of the 20 major categories of neonatal injuries cited, eight (40 per cent) involve blood vessels and some type of hemorrhage. Nerves or the nervous system is involved in six (30 per cent) of the injuries, and a major organ is also involved in six (30 per cent) of the injuries. Only five (24 per cent) of the injuries are the result of some type of bone fracture. The cause of injuries is thought to be associated with the occurrence of shoulder dystocia in six (30 per cent) of the cases. Use of instrumental techniques (e.g., forceps or vacuum extractors) is stated as being involved in at least 11 (55 per cent) of the injuries. Six (30 per cent) of the birth injuries were reported as leading to a potentially fatal prognosis (Pressler, 2008).

Categories and related sub-categories of common birth injuries include (Stavis, 2019):

  • Head injury is the most common birth-related injury and is usually minor, but serious injuries sometimes occur.
    • Head molding
    • Scalp abrasions
    • Caput succedaneum
    • Subgaleal hemorrhage*
    • Cephalhematoma*
    • Depressed skull fractures
  • Facial Nerve Injury* - The facial nerve is injured most often. Although forceps pressure is a common cause, some injuries probably result from pressure on the nerve in utero.
  • Brachial Plexus Injuries* - frequently follow lateral stretching of the neck during delivery caused by shoulder dystocia, breech extraction, or hyperabduction of the neck in cephalic presentations.
    • Erb palsy
    • Klumpke palsy
    • Involvement of the entire plexus
  • Phrenic Nerve Injuries* - Most phrenic nerve injuries (about 75 per cent) are associated with brachial plexus injury. Injury is usually unilateral and caused by a traction injury of the head and neck.
  • Spinal Cord Injury* - Trauma usually occurs in breech deliveries after excess longitudinal traction to the spine.
  • Intracranial Hemorrhage - Hemorrhage in or around the brain can occur in any neonate but is particularly common among those born prematurely; about 25 per cent of premature infants < 1500 g have intracranial hemorrhage.
  • Fractures* - Midclavicular fracture, the most common fracture during birth, occurs with shoulder dystocia and with normal, nontraumatic deliveries.
  • Soft -Tissue Injuries - All soft tissues are susceptible to injury during birth if they have been the presenting part or the fulcrum for the forces of uterine contraction.

*related to instrument-assisted delivery.

The incidence of birth injuries has dramatically decreased in the last two decades. Macrosomia and instrumental deliveries are major risk factors for birth injuries. Forceps use is the most common cause of facial nerve injury and is usually self-limited. Erb palsy is the most common brachial plexus injury. Shoulder dystocia is a major risk factor for brachial plexus injury. Planned cesarean delivery for breech presentation decreases mortality and morbidity. Posterior fossa hematoma can cause brain stem compression, leading to respiratory compromise (Akangire & Carter, 2016).

Now that forceps are used less frequently (e.g., especially use of mid- and high forceps), many of the injuries that were common before 1966 (e.g., skull fractures, facial bone fractures, femur fractures, facial) palsy, and cervical spine injuries are rarely seen in the United States today. Breech deliveries are less likely to be completed vaginally, and cesarean deliveries can be performed using a transverse incision instead of a midline incision approach. Nearly half of major birth injuries and serious negative outcomes are potentially avoidable with early detection and intervention. To avoid specific negative outcomes, various evaluative techniques, such as perinatal history, physical examination, radiographs, paracentesis, ultrasonography, computerized tomography scans, and magnetic resonance imaging, can be used to predict more accurately the abnormalities that place the fetus at high risk for major birth injuries. However, predicting the likelihood of an injury's occurrence does not guarantee that it will not happen, but instead may help lessen the severity of the injury approach (Pressler, 2008).

When assisted vaginal birth is deemed to have a higher risk of not being successful, it should be considered a trial of assisted vaginal birth and be conducted in a location where immediate recourse to Caesarean delivery is available (Hobson et al., 2019).

Performing a Caesarean section with extraction of a deeply impacted fetal head out of the maternal pelvis is technically challenging even for experienced obstetricians. The difficulty for the surgeon is to disengage the impacted head by hand due to a lack of space between the muscular and bony maternal pelvis and the deeply impacted fetal head. This procedure is associated with serious neonatal complications, for instance skull injuries causing cerebral haemorrhage and newborn hypoxia that result in higher neonatal admission rates. Head pushing is the most commonly practiced technique. However, reverse breech extraction has gradually been given higher priority. Recently assessed neonatal outcome show less morbidity after reverse breech extraction compared to the head pushing method for obstructed labour. The beneficial maternal-fetal results of performing the reverse breech procedure indicate that it is a reliable alternative to the standard head pushing method and should preferably be used in deeply impacted fetal head situations during Caesarean section in advanced labour (Lenz et al., 2019).

Risk Factors and Related Injuries

Factors predisposing the infant to birth injury and their related injuries include (Akangire, 2016):

Risk Factors Related Injuries
Forceps delivery Facial nerve injuries
Vacuum extraction Depressed skull fracture, subgaleal hemorrhage
Forceps/vacuum/forceps + vacuum Cephalohematoma, intracranial hemorrhage, shoulder dystocia, retinal hemorrhages
Breech presentation Brachial plexus palsy, intracranial hemorrhage, gluteal lacerations, long bone fractures
Macrosomia Shoulder dystocia, clavicle, and rib fractures, cephalohematoma, caput succedaneum
Abnormal presentation (face, brow, transverse, compound) Excessive bruising, retinal hemorrhage, lacerations
Prematurity Bruising, intracranial, and extracranial hemorrhage
Precipitous delivery Bruising, intracranial, and extracranial hemorrhage, retinal hemorrhage


Reduce the incidence of injuries to the newborn during non-instrumented or instrument-assisted vaginal delivery, or Caesarean section.

Table of Contents


Hospital Harm Measure

Back to Hospital Harm Measure

Hospital Harm Measure

Back to Hospital Harm Measure