A Nationwide Birth Injury Resource

Hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy (HIE) is a medical term that refers to brain injury caused by oxygen deprivation during or shortly after birth. Unfortunately, this condition affects far too many babies nationwide every year - about two to three in every thousand live births. HIE requires immediate medical intervention to reduce the harm to the baby's brain.

Causes of HIE

Fetal distress: During labor and delivery, several complications can cause oxygen deprivation. For example, abnormal positioning, umbilical cord issues, rupture of the uterus or prolonged labor can result in HIE. Doctors need to carefully monitor the baby's heart rate and immediately intervene if it drops below the normal range.

Infections and sepsis: When an infection is passed from the mother's body to the baby's body during labor and delivery, it needs to be treated immediately. Otherwise, the baby can be seriously harmed by complications, including HIE.

Premature births are at particularly high risk of developing HIE. Other risk factors include preeclampsia, low blood pressure, certain blood clotting disorders in the mother's body, and vaginal birth after caesarean (VBAC), which increases the risk that the uterus will rupture.

Diagnosing HIE

One of the first warning signs of HIE may be a low Apgar score that persists for five minutes or more after birth. Other visible warning signs include:

  • Meconium (first bowel movement) in the amniotic fluid
  • Low heart rate
  • Weak or no breathing
  • Blue or pale skin
  • Poor muscle tone
  • Excessive acid in the blood

It's important that doctors identify the warning signs of HIE quickly. Immediate interventions such as head cooling or whole-body cooling can mitigate long-term damage. Children with HIE may go on to have developmental delays and develop serious medical conditions, such as epilepsy or cerebral palsy.

Understanding your child's rights

Many instances of HIE occur due to preventable causes. While not all cases of neonatal brain damage can be avoided, doctors have a responsibility to carefully monitor babies during pregnancy, labor and delivery, and prenatal care, and to quickly intervene to prevent brain damage from occurring or to mitigate the long-term damage when HIE does occur.

Because the long-term impact of HIE can be so substantial, families need to be aware of their legal rights and options when brain injuries are caused by negligence. The best course of action is to schedule a free consultation with an attorney in your jurisdiction.