When a baby has its first stool inside the womb, the baby is at risk of breathing in a mixture of the stool and amniotic fluid. This is known as meconium aspiration and can put the baby at risk of health complications or birth injury. Doctors and healthcare professionals should be aware of the signs and symptoms of meconium aspiration and should react quickly to reduce the risk of injury.
If your child suffered meconium aspiration during birth and you are concerned that the doctors and nurses did not do enough to address your concerns, the damage may have been caused by medical negligence. Contact your birth injury medical malpractice attorney to understand your rights.
What is Meconium Aspiration?
When a baby is in the womb, the child's body develops body functions that are reliant on the mother. This includes the blood flow from the mother to the child, with oxygen and nutrients to help the child develop and thrive. The umbilical cord carries oxygenated blood to the fetus and carries away the deoxygenated and nutrient-depleted blood.
The baby also develops waste functions, including urination and defecation, but these functions generally are not performed until after birth. However, in some cases, a child may defecate, or “poop” while still in the womb. The baby's first stool is known as meconium.
Meconium is a dark, greenish-black stool that can appear like tar. This stool is produced in the baby's intestines shortly before birth. When the meconium is released while the baby is still in the womb, the stool can be aspirated or breathed in, with the amniotic fluid. If the baby breathes in meconium-stained amniotic fluid before birth, this can lead to a condition known as meconium aspiration syndrome (MAS).
Meconium aspiration is not uncommon. One study found that MAS may occur in as many as 13% of live births. MAS is a serious condition, which can cause respiratory distress. In MAS, the particles in the meconium may block the baby's airway, causing oxygen deprivation.
Lack of Oxygen and Brain Injury
Oxygen is extremely important to a baby's developing brain. During labor and childbirth, the child may be especially sensitive to changes in oxygen levels as the baby transitions from getting oxygen through the womb to breathing outside air. Lack of oxygen during labor or after birth can cause damage to the brain.
Damage to the brain can begin within moments of reduced oxygen levels. Hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy (HIE) is a brain injury caused by oxygen deprivation due to hypoxic or anoxic injuries. Hypoxia involves reduced blood oxygenation to the brain. Ischemia is diminished blood flow to the brain. If the brain continues to lack oxygen, brain cells die and permanent brain damage occurs.
Lack of oxygen at birth can lead to developmental delays and brain damage. However, a parent may not understand how extensive the damage is, or if there was any brain damage at all, until later in the child's life, when they miss developmental milestones and their dysfunctions become more evident.
Symptoms of Meconium Aspiration at Birth
Signs and symptoms of meconium aspiration generally begin with delivery. Meconium can make the amniotic fluid a greenish color, known as meconium staining. The staining can make the baby's skin appear yellowish if the meconium has been present in the amniotic fluid for a period of time. Aside from the physical sign of the meconium, symptoms of MAS generally involve the baby's breathing, including:
- Rapid breathing
- Labored breathing
- Pulling in of the chest wall
- Bloated chest
- Grunting sounds
- Cyanosis, or bluish skin color
- Limp body
- Low Apgar score
It may also be possible to diagnose meconium aspiration by meconium staining on the vocal cords using a laryngoscopy. Abnormal breathing sounds may also indicate meconium aspiration. Imaging tests like x-rays may also help diagnose MAS.
Risks and Causes of Meconium Aspiration
It is not always clear what causes a baby to release stool before they are born. The risk is higher with full-term babies who are small for their gestational age and post-term babies. In some cases, meconium may pass early, while still in the uterus, if the baby is in fetal distress. Stress can be related to a decrease in blood and oxygen supply, which may be caused by:
- Nuchal umbilical cord (wrapped around the neck)
- Prolapsed cord
- Acute maternal hypotension
- Traumatic birth
- Placenta previa
If the child aspirates meconium and it is trapped in the lungs, it can stick to alveoli air sacs, making it difficult for the baby to breathe. Meconium in the lungs may also cause an infection or pneumonia. Untreated, meconium in the lungs can be fatal.
Medical Malpractice Causes of Meconium Aspiration Syndrome
The risk of meconium aspiration may increase with medical errors. The risk of MAS may be more likely when the baby is in fetal distress and increases if fetal distress is not immediately addressed. If the doctors and nurses encounter problems during labor or delivery, it may require an emergency c-section. A delayed cesarean section may cause the baby to suffer unnecessary oxygen deprivation, increasing the risk of meconium aspiration and the risk of hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy.
Another indication of potential malpractice is the failure of doctors to appreciate signs of meconium staining and address possible MAS. If there are signs of possible MAS, the doctors need to identify whether the child is at risk of respiratory distress and take action to reduce the risk of serious injury. Failure to take action, delayed diagnosis of MAS, or using improper techniques to treat the baby may all cause unnecessary birth injury.
Treatment for Meconium Aspiration Syndrome
Treatment for MAS may depend on the child's condition and other factors, including the time of exposure, breathing ability, and amount of meconium. The immediate response may involve suctioning of the upper airways, including the mouth, nose, and throat. If necessary, the lower airways may also be suctioned. Providing supplemental oxygen through a face mask or ventilator may also be necessary to make sure the child is getting enough oxygen to the brain.
Long-Term Effects of Meconium Aspiration
If meconium aspiration is treated before it causes hypoxic injury, the child may have no long-term effects after MAS. However, if it causes oxygen deprivation, it can lead to permanent brain damage and developmental delays. The long-term effects of a brain injury may depend on the extent of damage, and may include:
Meconium Aspiration Birth Injury Lawyers
It only takes a brief moment of medical failure to cause permanent birth injury damage. Medical professionals, including doctors and surgeons, are held to a certain standard of care. If a doctor breaches that duty of care, they may be liable for damages and injuries. For a birth injury, the damages can be substantial, to cover a lifetime of medical care.
At Gilman & Bedigian, we will use our experience, knowledge, and dedication to investigate birth injuries to determine if the injury was caused by malpractice Our aggressive trial lawyers have helped our clients recover millions of dollars in compensation related to birth injuries. Contact us online or call our law office at (800) 529-6162 for a free consultation.