Birth Asphyxia: Signs, effects and prevention


Birth Asphyxia

This is what happens when a newborn baby’s brain and other organs do not get enough oxygen before, during or right after birth.

This may manifest as an absence of crying or breathing immediately after birth. This results in a series of complications with long lasting consequences.

It is very common in under-developed countries where access to healthcare is poor or healthcare is underutilized.

“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,” a research by Seattle Children’s says.

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Signs of Asphyxia

A baby might be asphyxiated if;

  • The baby looks blue or pale
  • No pulse is felt
  • There’s no facial movement (crying)
  • The baby appears limp
  • There is no breathing

The above can be summarized using something called the APGAR score which would give an idea of when to take action to prevent birth asphyxia.

A score of 7-10 is normal, while any score below 7 connotes asphyxia in varying degrees.

Risk factors

The risk factors which predispose a baby to asphyxia include (but not limited to)

  • Diabetes in the mother
  • Twin pregnancy
  • Hypertension in the mother
  • No antenatal care
  • Post-dated pregnancy
  • Maternal age over 35 or below 16
  • Home delivery
  • Premature labor
  • Precipitous labor
  • Prolonged labor
  • Abnormal presentation

Effects of asphyxia

Asphyxia damages the brain leading to bleeding into brain matter, swelling and convulsions.

It also causes heart damage, kidney damage, respiratory difficulty and gastrointestinal problems.

Prevention of Asphyxia

The best way to prevent asphyxia is to make sure the pregnancy is supervised via regular antenatal care visits and delivery is handled by competent people who would know how to recognize asphyxia and manage it adequately.


Birth asphyxia is a cause of death in babies although it is largely preventable. It also causes mental deficiencies (cerebral palsy) which is a result of permanent damage to brain cells.

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