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Umbilical Cord Prolapse

Umbilical cord prolapse is a rare but dangerous condition that can occur during birth. When the umbilical cord is compressed, the baby can suffer serious injuries, even death, due to a lack of oxygen flow. Find out what help is available if this has happened to your baby due to medical negligence.

A prolapsed umbilical cord is a potentially dangerous condition that can occur during the birth of a child. This delivery complication occurs when the umbilical cord drops through the cervix into the birth canal before the baby moves into the vagina.

When the umbilical cord comes through the cervix and vagina first, the cord may become compressed as the baby’s head moves into the birth canal, limiting blood flow through the cord. At that point, the baby still needs to receive oxygenated blood through the umbilical cord; it’s not until after the baby has passed through the birth canal that the baby starts breathing and receiving oxygen through their lungs. Compression of the umbilical cord therefore interferes with the baby’s supply of oxygen

An umbilical cord prolapse causes a significant risk to the baby. Fortunately, the risk of umbilical cord prolapse is fairly small, with the condition affecting approximately 0.1 percent to 0.6 percent of all births. The risk increases when the baby presents in a breech position, which means that the baby’s feet or bottom, rather than the head, comes out first.

When an umbilical cord prolapse starves the baby of oxygen, it can lead to a condition known as hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy. 40 to 60% of affected infants either die from the condition or are left with severe disabilities.

What is umbilical cord prolapse?

Because babies can’t breathe on their own in the womb, they receive oxygen and nutrients through the umbilical cord. With two arteries and one vein, the umbilical cord brings oxygenated and nutrient-rich blood from the placenta to the baby, and returns deoxygenated blood and waste products back to the placenta, where they will pass into the mother’s blood for elimination.

Because the baby receives oxygen from the umbilical cord, blocking the flow of blood through the cord is like stopping the baby from breathing.

In most pregnancies and births, the umbilical cord merely floats around the placenta. After the baby is born, both the cord and the placenta will later come through the birth canal, a process known as the afterbirth. But in a small number of births, the umbilical cord can drop down through the cervix at the start of the birthing process. This is more likely when the baby is in a breech position (rather than head-down), because this position leaves more space for the umbilical cord to pass through the cervix before the baby does.

When the umbilical cord is prolapsed, the baby may compress the cord as they move down through the cervix. The compression can slow down or even completely stop the flow of oxygenated blood to the baby. The lack of oxygen can cause damage to the brain and other tissues, leading to lifelong medical problems. In some cases, it leads to the death of the baby.

If they find a prolapsed umbilical cord, medical professionals can intervene to reduce the risk to the baby. If they do not discover the issue in time or are unable to restore oxygen to the baby quickly, a baby could be born with brain damage, suffer extensive medical problems, and require lifelong care. The baby may even die.

Who is responsible for an umbilical cord prolapse?

Many circumstances during birth may cause or contribute to umbilical cord prolapse. It most often occurs in association with the following conditions:

  • Premature rupture of the membranes
  • Low birth weight
  • Breech presentation
  • Multiple fetuses
  • Excess amniotic fluid
  • A fetus that is hyperactive

Because this condition and its causes are well-known, medical professionals need to be hyperaware of the risks. Medical professionals can be liable for whatever damage a prolapsed umbilical cord causes when they fail to spot the risks and symptoms.

OB-GYNs, midwives, nurses, and other medical professionals have a duty to diagnose and provide treatment for prolapsed umbilical cords.

When medical providers overlook this condition by neglecting to monitor the baby’s heart rate with a fetal heart monitor or failing to perform a thorough pelvic examination, the doctor and their staff can be held responsible for the damages caused.

If a baby dies or suffers serious lifelong health problems due to the negligence of medical providers, this is considered medical malpractice.

What is medical malpractice?

Medical malpractice is when a medical professional causes injury or death to their patients by not following the standard of care. The standard of care is defined as the basic level of care that a competent and trained medical professional practicing the same specialty would have used within the same (or similar) circumstances.

Doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals all must follow a standard of care. When they don’t, people can be injured.

For instance, if an OB-GYN fails to closely monitor the fetal heart rate during the birth process—especially in a case with a higher risk of umbilical cord prolapse—then the doctor could ultimately be liable for any damages caused by their failure to follow the standard of care.

Patients may be able to hold medical professionals, along with their employers, responsible for the injuries and damage caused.

In many cases, doctors are employees of hospitals and large medical practices. A hospital or medical office can be liable for not creating and implementing proper training and monitoring of doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals employed there.

Effects of Oxygen Deprivation at Birth

Insufficient oxygen during the birthing process can cause serious and lasting health problems for the baby. Every case is different; the amount of oxygen the baby receives will determine the long-lasting issues the child might face.

Low oxygen to the brain can be immediately fatal or cause the following conditions after birth:

  • Cerebral palsy
  • Epilepsy
  • Intellectual disabilities
  • Significant physical disabilities
  • Nerve damage
  • Anxiety
  • Depression

Most of these conditions will affect children for their entire lives.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the first signs of umbilical cord prolapse?

One of the first signs of umbilical cord prolapse is often an irregular heartbeat in the baby, as seen on the fetal heart monitor. The baby’s heart rate may suddenly drop sharply. A prolapsed umbilical cord may also be seen or felt on a pelvic exam.

Can a baby survive cord prolapse?

Yes, babies survive umbilical cord prolapses most of the time. But depending on how much and how long their oxygen level was restricted, they may have ongoing health and cognitive issues.

What is the survival rate of cord prolapse?

The survival rate of umbilical cord prolapse is approximately 90 percent if caught in time.

When to Contact an Attorney

Perhaps you or a loved one has experienced an umbilical cord prolapse, and your baby suffered serious health problems and cognitive damage. You could qualify for compensation to help deal with the costs of caring for your child.

A child who survives an umbilical cord prolapse might experience serious and significant physical and mental disabilities. Treatment for a child who has these issues will be lasting and lifelong.

Suppose a medical professional did not follow the standard of care and caused a medical condition, injuries, or other damage. In that case, they might have to pay compensation to reimburse the injured person and their family.

Because the ongoing medical treatment and basic care for the disabled child will be costly, the best way to secure this type of compensation is to hire a lawyer to help with the case.

Families should carefully think through who they are choosing to represent them. An experienced medical malpractice attorney is the best qualified to help a family with their case. Medical malpractice cases require lawyers to have a good understanding of the medical field and the various standards of care necessary for certain procedures. These types of lawsuits are very complex, and may require hiring several medical experts to testify on your behalf. Therefore, the law firm you hire must have adequate resources to take on big hospital systems, as well as experience in litigating medical malpractice cases.

Statute of Limitations for Birth Medical Malpractice

You should be aware that there are deadlines to file lawsuits involving medical malpractice and other personal injury cases. These deadlines are called statutes of limitations, and can vary by state. Therefore, the statute of limitations for a birth injury case might be different in your state versus another.

The state in which the malpractice occurred will dictate what law to use. In a standard medical malpractice case, the time frame ranges from one year up to three years from the date of the malpractice or when you reasonably discovered it.

But since every state is different, you will have to be careful and check what the rules are in your state.

The time limit for children is different, though. Usually, the statute of limitations time frame doesn’t start until the injured baby turns 18. But you don’t want to wait that long to get legal help. If you miss the deadline and don’t file a lawsuit within the time allotted, you will be barred from recovering compensation from the negligent party.

That is why contacting an experienced birth injury medical malpractice lawyer as soon as you suspect a problem is so important.

The Birth Injury Center Has the Information You Seek

If you have recently gone through the trauma of a birth involving an umbilical cord prolapse, the Birth Injury Center is here to help.

Our goal is to provide as much information and data to new and expecting parents on many issues surrounding birth injuries and their aftermath. For more information, continue to review our website and the information we provide.

Written by:
Birth Injury Center Team

The Birth Injury Center aims to create informational web content and guides to help women and their families seeking support and guidance for birth injuries caused by medical negligence. All of the content published across The Birth Injury Center website has been thoroughly investigated and approved by medical expert Natalie Speer, RNC-OB, Attorney Ryan Mahoney.