Airway, Breathing and Lung Conditions

Birth Asphyxia

What Is Birth Asphyxia?

Asphyxia means lack of oxygen. Birth asphyxia happens when a baby's brain and other organs do not get enough oxygen before, during or right after birth. This can happen without anyone knowing. Without oxygen, cells cannot work properly. Waste products (acids) build up in the cells and cause temporary or permanent damage.

Some causes of birth asphyxia may include:

  • Too little oxygen in the mother's blood before or during birth
  • Problems with the placenta separating from the uterus too soon
  • Very long or difficult delivery
  • Problems with the umbilical cord during delivery
  • A serious infection in the mother or baby
  • High or low blood pressure in the mother
  • Baby's airway is not formed properly
  • Baby's airway is blocked
  • The baby's blood cells cannot carry enough oxygen (anemia)

Birth Asphyxia in Children

Birth asphyxia occurs in about four of every 1,000 full-term births. It may be even more common when babies are born prematurely.

The amount of harm to the newborn depends on how long and how severe the period of asphyxia is, and how quickly the right treatment is given.

Two stages of injury can happen with birth asphyxia. The first stage happens within minutes without oxygen. Cell damage occurs with the initial lack of blood flow and oxygen. The second stage of damage is called "reperfusion injury" and can last for days or even weeks. This injury occurs after restoration of normal blood flow and oxygen to the brain, and is due to toxins released from the damaged cells.

Babies with mild or moderate asphyxia may recover fully. Babies whose cells did not get enough oxygen for a longer time may have permanent injury to their brain, heart, lungs, kidneys, bowels or other organs.

When a premature baby has asphyxia, the damage may lead to cerebral palsy, developmental disabilities, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or impaired sight. In the most severe cases, asphyxia can lead to organ failure and death.

Birth Asphyxia at Seattle Children's

We have a great deal of experience treating birth asphyxia. We can monitor and treat infants even when one or more body organs have failed. Technologies such as continuous dialysis for kidney failure, ECMO for heart and/or lung failure and whole body cooling with bedside brain monitoring are among the treatment options.

Our neonatologists are doing research to improve the treatments for babies with asphyxia so they can have the best possible chance at a healthy life.