What Is the Difference Between a Birth Injury and a Birth Defect?

Closeup of pencil eraser and black birth injuries text Birth Defects inscription on the sheet.

The key difference between a birth injury and a birth defect is the specific cause of the condition. Many people use these terms interchangeably, but they develop under different circumstances, and one type of condition may warrant malpractice lawsuits.

Birth Injuries vs. Birth Defects

The main difference between birth injuries and birth defects is the way these conditions develop. While birth injuries occur at some point before, during, or immediately following birth, birth defects are conditions that the fetus develops within the womb. Another difference is their frequency of occurrence. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that birth injuries develop in around seven out of 1,000 children every year in the U.S., while one in 33 children develop birth defects every year.

Birth defects can result from certain types of external factors, including the mother’s use of drugs or alcohol, environmental conditions, and more. However, they frequently develop without a definitive cause. Meanwhile, birth injuries often occur because of an avoidable action, such as a doctor’s negligence at some point before, during, or after the child’s birth.

The nature of birth defects vs. birth injuries also makes the time and method of identification potentially different. For instance, because birth defects tend to develop in the womb, ultrasounds frequently detect them during pregnancy. On the other hand, birth injuries typically become identifiable within a year of the child’s birth if they aren’t immediately identifiable during delivery.

However, it can take far longer for parents and pediatricians to identify birth injuries in some cases. For example, a child’s birth injury could impact cognitive development, which may not become apparent until the child displays delays in the ability to walk, speak, or perform other basic functions.

While birth defects don’t tend to develop because of malpractice, you may be able to sue for birth injuries if you can prove that negligence resulted in a birth injury at some point during the child’s development.

Common Types of Birth Injuries

There are many types of birth injuries that may develop because of different factors, but many of them are avoidable and result from a medical professional’s negligence, constituting malpractice.

The following are some of the most common types of birth injuries that could warrant a claim or lawsuit against negligent professionals:


According to Stanford Medicine, fractures of the collarbone or clavicle are among the most common types of fractures that babies sustain during delivery and labor. Babies may suffer fractured clavicles when there is an issue during breech deliveries, when obstetricians struggle to remove the baby’s shoulders.

Brachial Palsy

The brachial plexus is a cluster of nerves in the hands and arms that can sustain injuries during delivery of a baby’s shoulders. Although this injury can heal over time in minor cases, shoulder dystocia and other causes of brachial palsy may lead to permanent damage in some instances. While the infant heals, doctors may instruct patients to perform certain exercises that allow for more mobility.


The skull has a cover made of fibers over it, and bleeding may occur between this covering and the bone during delivery due to pressure sustained during delivery as blood vessels rupture. You may be able to see this injury in the form of a bump on the baby’s head after delivery, but after several weeks, this injury tends to heal as a minor condition. You may also notice yellowing of the skin (jaundice) if the injury is extensive enough, but this is also likely to fade as the injury heals.


Sometimes bruising may develop on the baby’s skin after delivery, often around the head. This injury may result from the pressure sustained during birth, and is likely to disappear after the baby heals. Bruising on the scalp may also result from the pressure of vacuum extraction, with some instances even resulting in lacerations.

Forceps Marks

In some cases, obstetricians may use forceps to remove the baby from the birth canal, causing bruising and leaving marks in the process. Forceps may also cause other injuries during birth, including cephalohematoma.

Facial Paralysis

During delivery, the baby may endure a certain amount of pressure on the face, either from passing through the birth canal or the use of forceps. Under this pressure, the facial nerve may sustain damage, causing partial paralysis. While a bruised nerve will heal on its own in most cases, doctors may need to perform surgery to correct a torn nerve. Paralysis is likely an issue if the baby is unable to move one side of his or her face.

Cerebral Palsy

Cerebral palsy is a common birth injury that may develop if the baby experiences loss of oxygen to the brain during delivery. This lack of oxygen causes damage to the brain and can affect different parts of the brain and body as a result. Symptoms of this untreatable condition may include issues with speech, vision, and hearing, along with cognitive disabilities and seizures.

These and other injuries can develop either because of the natural forces endured during birth or doctors’ struggles to deliver the baby, but some instances may result from a professional’s negligence.

Types of Birth Defects

In addition to birth injuries, babies may face certain risks around birth defects. Some of the most common types of birth defects that babies may develop include the following:

  • Blood clotting, i.e. hemophilia
  • Clubfoot
  • Muscular dystrophy
  • Ear and eye defects
  • Down syndrome
  • Microcephaly or brain defects

There are many others that may result from unknown causes or certain external conditions affecting the unborn baby, including drug or alcohol abuse, medications, various illnesses, or overheating. Some examples of other conditions include cleft lip, abdominal defects, esophageal defects, and skull defects, among others. Doctors can help diagnose these birth defects either before or after the child’s birth.

In some cases, these and other defects could affect the child for the rest of his or her life and require lifelong care.

Filing a Birth Injury Lawsuit

While many birth injuries can develop as part of the natural birthing process and in efforts to safely remove the child, some injuries may occur because of negligence on the part of doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals. If you believe negligence occurred and caused one or more birth injuries, you may be able to recover compensation with a birth injury lawsuit.

Doctors and other professionals may engage in different types of negligent behavior warranting a lawsuit or claim. For example, doctors may fail to provide adequate prenatal care, respond to fetal distress, perform timely delivery, respond to bleeding, or monitor the fetus prior to and during childbirth.

Recovering Damages for Birth Injuries

If negligence resulted in one or more birth injuries, families may be able to recover certain types of damages stemming from these injuries.

There are many potential recoverable damages in a birth injury case. These may include economic damages such as medical bills, lost income, and lost earning capacity, along with the costs of conducting funerals and burials for fatal injuries. Additionally, families may recover non-economic damages including pain and suffering, reduced quality of life, trauma, and more.

Hiring a Lawyer to File a Claim or Lawsuit

If your child sustains a birth injury, and you want to build a case against a negligent doctor or another professional, you must be able to prove a few key items. You will first need to prove that the medical professional owed you and your child a duty of care, followed by proving that the professional breached this duty of care. You will also need to show how this breach of duty of care led to the child’s injuries and subsequent damages.

Like other negligence cases, it can be difficult to prove these items, which is why it’s often best to hire a birth injury attorney to help build a case. An experienced lawyer will be able to assess your case and determine what options are available to you. He or she may also be able to gather evidence proving how negligence took place and led to your child’s injuries.

Knowing the difference between a birth injury and a birth defect may help you determine if you have a medical malpractice case you can pursue with the help of legal counsel.


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