Understanding the Connection Between Meconium and Your Child’s Cerebral Palsy

Cerebral palsy (CP) is a group of neurological conditions that affect motor function. It is the most common motor disability in childhood. CP can arise due to damage or injury to the brain during development, before, during, or after birth. Cerebral palsy is a permanent condition with no known cure. Meconium, or a newborn’s first bowel movement, could potentially cause cerebral palsy if it leads to complications while the baby is in the womb.

Cerebral Palsy and Asphyxiation

Many different things can cause cerebral palsy in an infant. Any disruption to normal brain development before, during, or after birth can damage the brain in a way that causes permanent disability. Some of the most common causes are complicated births, problems during labor, and birth injuries. Asphyxiation, or lack of oxygen, at any stage of the birthing process could potentially cause cerebral palsy. Asphyxiation may occur during birth for many reasons, including:

  • Umbilical cord prolapse
  • Lack of oxygen in the mother’s blood
  • Anesthesia complications
  • Maternal low blood pressure
  • A serious infection in mother or baby
  • Problems with the placenta
  • Long or difficult delivery
  • Something blocking baby’s airway

Asphyxia during delivery can lead to an inadequate amount of oxygen going to the baby’s brain. This in turn can cause brain cells to sustain damage or die. Brain cell damage can potentially cause cerebral palsy. Meconium is a possible risk for asphyxiation, as it may enter the baby’s lungs and block the airways. The medical term for this issue is meconium aspiration syndrome. It is a physician’s job to monitor for signs of meconium aspiration syndrome and to reasonably try to prevent it from happening.

About Meconium Aspiration Syndrome

All infants have meconium. While most babies release meconium immediately after birth, some do so while still in the womb. This is most common in term or post-term babies, as well as during long or difficult births. Releasing meconium in the womb can lead to the baby breathing the stool, along with amniotic fluid, into the lungs. This can cause a buildup that blocks the baby’s airways – or meconium aspiration syndrome. Signs of this syndrome include:

  • Yellowed skin and nails
  • Blue appearance (cyanosis)
  • Rapid or difficult breathing
  • Chest wall retraction
  • Over-distended chest
  • Grunting sounds while breathing
  • Limp body
  • Low Apgar score after birth

Meconium aspiration syndrome occurs in about 11% of births, according to John Hopkins. It most often stems from fetal distress, such as infections or a complicated birth. X-rays of the baby’s chest may be necessary to properly diagnose this syndrome, since its symptoms can resemble other health problems. Failure to diagnose meconium aspiration syndrome can be fatal for a baby in severe cases. In other cases, it could lead to asphyxiation long enough to permanently damage the brain and cause issues such as cerebral palsy.

Treating Meconium Aspiration Syndrome

A baby in distress may not receive enough oxygen, which can relax the baby’s anal sphincter and increase intestinal activity. This can lead to a premature passing of the meconium, and the potential for the baby to breathe it into the lungs. Note that meconium in the amniotic fluid does not always cause meconium aspiration syndrome. If a child develops this syndrome, physicians may treat it in various ways.

A physician may suction the child’s airways to clear them of fluids and substances during the delivery process. In other situations, the physician may suction the lower airways while extracting the meconium through an endotracheal tube. A doctor may also give supplemental oxygen to the baby through a ventilator to help prevent asphyxiation and brain damage. Prompt diagnosis and treatment are critical in preventing permanent damage to the infant’s brain due to breathing in meconium.

Meconium Aspiration Syndrome and Cerebral Palsy

Some infants who have breathed in meconium may require resuscitation during the birthing process, in response to respiratory distress. In other cases, respiratory distress may develop in the first hours after birth. The baby may need a breathing machine to assist them with regular breathing at first. Some physicians may use a saline solution to help break down particularly thick meconium in the lungs. Infections may occur in babies with respiratory problems, as well as pneumonia.

If your child suffered through a difficult birth that led to distress and meconium in the amniotic sac, it could be the cause of his or her cerebral palsy. This is most common in cases of severe meconium aspiration syndrome. A physician could be legally responsible for your child’s cerebral palsy if the doctor negligently failed to continuously monitor the fetus before and during birth for signs of fetal distress, resulting in asphyxia and cerebral palsy.

Discuss your case with an attorney if you suspect malpractice contributed to your child’s cerebral palsy – especially after complications with the meconium or ignored signs of fetal distress. You and your family could be eligible for financial compensation through the civil justice system. A successful settlement or verdict could help you pay for your child’s lifelong medical expenses and other cerebral-palsy related costs.