Anoxic Brain Injury in Infants: What Causes Baby Brain Trauma?

If you were injured due to someone else's negligence, you may be entitled to significant compensation. Contact one of our experienced lawyers at (757) 244-7000 for legal advice and representation.

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There are few lives more vulnerable than the human infant. While some mammals are born practically standing on their feet (like giraffes), human children spend years developing immune responses, fine motor skills, and the “gift of gab” aka language proficiency. That is why anoxic brain injury in infants is such a profound tragedy. If your little one has suffered baby brain trauma due to lack of oxygen (anoxia), it’s important to understand what caused this damage and who is responsible for failing your child.

We here at Smith Law Center have a comprehensive history in handling traumatic brain injury (TBI) cases in adults, experience which helps us understand the special considerations needed in cases of infant brain injury. Read on to learn about the symptoms and causes of brain injury in infants, as well as advice on when it’s the right time to call an attorney to come to your child’s defense.

What Is Anoxic Brain Injury in Infants? Detailed Definitions

Anoxic brain injuries in infants occur when oxygen is completely denied to the brain for a significant period of time. There are a few medical definitions you should know when it comes to oxygen deprivation injuries.


“Anoxia” means simply “an absence of oxygen,” so “anoxic injury” is an injury caused by a total lack of oxygen. Anoxic injury can happen to a single organ or multiple body parts depending on the circumstances.

For example, during a heart attack, a portion of the heart can be starved of oxygen and start to die, leading to permanent scarring on the muscle. In another instance, the reason that mountain-climbers in cold, low-oxygen altitudes are in danger of losing fingers and toes is because some of the smallest blood vessels are in our extremities. When oxygen levels are low, the body sacrifices those outer limbs first, prioritizing oxygen for the most vital organs: the brain and heart.


“Hypoxia” is the step below anoxia. It means a lower-than-normal concentration of oxygen in arterial blood, but not a complete lack of oxygen (that is what anoxia means).

Hypoxia may be classified as “local,” meaning it affects a specific region of the body, or “generalized,” affecting the whole body. Local hypoxia is why a finger turns purple if you wrap a rubber band around the base of it. Generalized hypoxia occurs in instances of suffocation.

“Intermittent hypoxia” may not cause long-lasting damage, it’s the sort experienced by people who dive down to explore while snorkeling.

“Acute hypoxia” is also known as “silent hypoxia” and is far more dangerous. This is when oxygen levels plummet with no symptoms like coughing or shortness of breath, and is a condition doctors have seen in hospitalized COVID-19 patients.

Some refer to it as “happy hypoxia” when patients have oxygen-saturation levels so low as to be “seemingly incompatible with life” even as they interact with their cell phones as if nothing’s amiss.

Arterial Blood

Medically, the specific naming of “arterial blood” refers to the oxygenated blood in the circulatory system found in the pulmonary vein, the left chambers of the heart, and in the arteries. This is how doctors refer to blood that travels from the heart and lungs, bright red and rich with oxygen, as opposed to the oxygen-poor blood that returns to the heart (post-oxygen delivery) to pick up more air molecules for the rest of the body again.

Any condition that causes blood oxygen levels to dip, even briefly, could cause swift and irreversible harm. This is especially true when it comes to infants and young children, who don’t have the same lung and oxygen capacity that most adults in larger bodies possess.

Anoxic Brain Injury in Infants

A partial or total lack of oxygen to an infant’s brain can lead to life-long physical disabilities, blindness, mental delay, and permanent brain damage. It is particularly horrific for parents to realize that the healthy child they hoped for was there for a moment, until a lack of oxygen to their baby’s brain damaged him or her almost instantaneously.

While brains are remarkable machines capable of resiliency and nearly miraculous work-arounds, permanent damage to areas of the brain that control motor or language skills may have to be patiently managed for a lifetime.

If your child has suffered brain damage due to lack or absence of oxygen, you deserve answers, support, and justice.

What Are the Preventable Causes of Brain Injury in Infants?

When a child is in utero, there are three basic ways the flow of oxygen can be impeded:

  • The pathways which transport oxygenated maternal blood are blocked
  • Oxygenated blood enters the baby but is hindered before it reaches the brain
  • Blood flow is normal, but the blood is not carrying enough oxygen

Maternal risk factors for hypoxic or anoxic brain injury in infants include:

  • Gestational diabetes
  • Maternal obesity
  • Advanced maternal age
  • Preeclampsia (a pregnancy complication characterized by high blood pressure)

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However, even if the pregnancy is healthy, or high-risk but well-managed, other preventable factors can lead to oxygen deprivation to the infant, such as:

  • Intrauterine growth restriction: Abbreviated IUGR, this fetal growth restriction means the baby is underdeveloped for the gestational age. This is a condition that could arise from high blood pressure in the mother, placenta abnormalities, smoking or alcohol abuse during pregnancy, or infections. Identifying this circumstance and diagnosing/treating the cause is the responsibility of your doctor.
  • Placental abruption: Dangerous to both baby and mother, this is when the placenta separates from the uterine wall before birth, depriving the child of oxygen and potentially causing heavy bleeding in the mother. Again, if a condition like this is missed by a medical professional or the treatment is delayed, preventable anoxic injury could occur.
  • Oligohydramnios: Another word for “low amniotic fluid,” an insufficient amount of buoying amniotic fluid could lead to intrauterine growth restriction, umbilical cord compression, cerebral palsy, preterm birth, or stillbirth. This condition must be closely monitored, and can be treated by induced labor or with an amnioinfusion during labor.
  • Uterine tachysystole and/or uterine rupture: Uterine tachysystole is excessively frequent uterine contractions during pregnancy or labor. It could contribute to uterine rupture during labor, which is a sudden tearing of the uterine wall, especially along a scar from a previous C-section. This is a predictable condition that requires rapid treatment to prevent lasting anoxic damage.
  • Cephalopelvic disproportion: Also known as CPD, this occurs when an infant’s head or body is too big to fit through the mother’s pelvis during birth. Failure to perform a C-section quickly enough could lead to oxygen deprivation.
  • Prolonged labor or umbilical cord issues: Normal labor occurs when babies are ready to breathe, and prolonged labor can cause hypoxic or anoxic brain injury. Likewise if the umbilical cord becomes compressed for too long or wraps around the baby’s neck during delivery, such strangulation could cause permanent brain damage. If your doctor fails to notice these circumstances, they could be considered responsible for the resulting damage.
  • Forceps and vacuum extractor injuries: In an attempt to pull the child through the birth canal quickly, doctors may employ tools that can harm your baby’s brain if not used properly. Infant brain damage resulting from negligent use of these items, or the use of a defective item, means preventable injury has been caused.
  • Neonatal resuscitation failures: A delay in resuscitating or intubating an infant who cannot breathe could cause oxygen deprivation to the brain and body of the tiny patient.
  • Medication errors: The wrong medication, delayed medication, or the incorrect amount of medication could lead to brain injury consequences. Prescription errors from the doctor or pharmaceutical errors from those who dispense the medications are issues that call for legal redress.

Some of the potential causes of anoxic brain injury are unavoidable risks. However, in each of these instances, dangerous conditions can be managed, and rapid response times can make all the difference.

Once damage to the brain is done, there is a child who needs extra care and support to survive and thrive. To that end, the reasons why an infant’s brain is deprived of oxygen matter: first to prevent such malpractice from happening again, and most importantly to ensure that your child is taken care of for as long as care is required. This is when it’s time to call an experienced attorney in brain and Birth injury law.

Do I Need an Attorney With Birth and Brain Injury Case Experience?

Birth injury and brain injury cases are difficult to pursue independent of one another. When combined, it requires the attention of an experienced professional.

Anoxic brain injury is not exclusively birth-related. According to an article published in Pediatric Neurology, outcomes vary in regards to babies and young children who suffer from other oxygen deprivation injuries to the brain. For example, anoxic injury can result from instances of near-drowning, suffocation, strangulation, cardiac arrest, electrocution with cardiac arrest, or incomplete sudden infant death syndrome.

The important difference under law is that such incidents are the result of accident or trauma, which may require a different line of legal proof. In comparison, a failure to render proper care in a hospital setting during labor and delivery may be an instance of medical malpractice.

The reason so many choose to give birth in a hospital is so that life-saving care can be provided in case of an emergency. If that care is delayed, if mistakes are made by medical professionals who should have known better, then a child has been severely injured due to negligence. Such a scenario cannot go unacknowledged.

Arguing for Long-Term Care in Court

An attorney with experience in brain injury knows they must account for the future care the injured party may need. This is especially critical in cases of infant and child brain injury, because as the brain develops around the damage caused by anoxic injury, new symptoms may emerge.

Long-term brain injury symptoms in growing children could include:

  • Breathing complications
  • Physical disabilities
  • Learning disabilities
  • Speech difficulties
  • Mood/personality disorders
  • Seizures
  • Depression
  • Hallucinations
  • Involuntary reflexes
  • Chronic headaches
  • Sleeping disorders
  • Inability to create lasting memories or future memory loss
  • Sensory disorders
  • Lobe syndromes (such as damage of higher functioning brain processes like planning, motivation, and social behavior)
  • Anton’s syndrome (aka visual anosognosia, a rare syndrome in which a person is blind, but lacks the self-​awareness that they are blind; essentially a mental denial of loss of vision)

The potential cost of medical procedures, specialized therapists and teachers, at-home nursing aids, and changing care needs as your child becomes a teenager and then an adult…these are overwhelming considerations for a new parent or young family to cope with.

A damages award or settlement could help account for:

  • Home care financing: This consideration could help provide a night nurse if round-the-clock care is needed, as well as regular professional visits or appointments, for as long as necessary.
  • Medical bills: Surgeries, hospital stays, and trips to the emergency room are pricey, but they’re also non-negotiable. If your child needs medical care, a settlement or damages award can see that you have the means to get it.
  • Medical-related expenses: Medical needs for a potentially life-long brain damage injury don’t stop at doctor visits or nursing help. They could also involve medications (for example, to help control seizures or epilepsy), mobility aids and equipment (special beds, walking aids, or a wheelchair), and/or re-outfitting a home to make it functional (wheelchair ramps, safety bars on stairs, an accessible bathroom).
  • Therapy costs: This could mean physical or speech therapy, as well as psychological care for your child, for you, for your marriage, or for your other children if you have them. Having a family member with a brain injury affects everyone in your household and possibly beyond (grandparents, aunts and uncles, and long-term friends)
  • Loss of future income or prospects: Parents dream of all that their children may become—a doctor or professor or athlete or scientist—the possibilities are endless, until a brain injury potentially limits them. This matters monetarily in accounting for a child who may grow into an adult who can’t financially support him- or herself, but also matters in limiting the dreams for a rich, full life.
  • Pain and suffering: The most difficult elements to put a price on fall under pain and suffering. This is attempted restitution for the stress, the grief, the heartache, the bodyache, and all the repercussions they cause for you and your family. The struggles of caring for a child with special needs may erode a marriage, for example, or could cause medical situations for the parents, such as ulcers due to stress, or weight gain or diabetes from poor health because you don’t have enough time for selfcare when your child is in need.

Call the established legal counsel at Smith Law Center to discuss your situation. Let a seasoned attorney handle the necessity to seek damages so you can be wholly focused on building a life for you and your baby going forward.

If your child has suffered brain damage due to lack or absence of oxygen, you deserve answers, support, and justice.

Smith Law Center Attorneys

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Our lawyers are more than lawyers. They are people who understand your injuries and the law that surrounds your options when it comes to holding others accountable.

Contact an Attorney Knowledgeable In Anoxic Brain Injury Law

Baby brain injury is devastating, and forever impacts the life, personality, and potential of your child. We here at Smith Law Center have over 40 years of experience in helping families recover from traumatic brain injuries, starting with founder Stephen Smith, a graduate of Marquette University’s Neuro Anatomical Program.

We have a record of success in pursuing justice for brain-injured clients, including vital restitution for a child injured by a hospital in surgery for a brain injury. Call us to schedule a free consultation at (757) 244-7000, or fill out our online contact form to begin the process of getting your questions answered.


Anoxic Brain Injury in Infants FAQ

What is hypoxic vs. anoxic brain injury in infants?

Hypoxic brain injuries in infants are caused by insufficient amounts of oxygen to the brain, while anoxic infant brain injury is harm caused by a total lack of oxygen (like with suffocation). The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke informs us that brain cells can begin to die within five minutes of being cut off from oxygen.

What are the preventable causes of brain injury in infants?

Some potential causes of early baby brain injury include low amniotic fluid, excessive uterine contracting or a uterine tears, intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR), placental abruption, cephalopelvic disproportion (CPD), prolonged labor or umbilical cord issues, forceps and vacuum extractor injuries, neonatal resuscitation failures, and/or medication distribution errors. Each of these could be avoided or minimized with proper medical care.

Do I need a lawyer with brain injury case experience?

Yes. Due to the complicated nature of medical malpractice cases, a dedicated brain injury lawyer has the knowledge necessary to get you full consideration under the law. The changing nature of brain injury care needs over time—possible surgery, rehab, home nursing aid, or a long-term care facility—necessitates an all-encompassing legal approach. You need an attorney who will advocate towards the goal of making sure that you never run out of the support you need.

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