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Shoulder Dystocia Can Spell Disaster for Babies

baby and mother

Editor’s note: article has been updated with 2018 data.

Shoulder dystocia is a birthing emergency that can occur while a baby is being delivered.  Even though the pregnancy might have been normal, and even though the mother’s uterus has been contracting normally during labor, the baby is physically blocked from coming out. Why? The baby’s shoulder becomes stuck behind the mother’s pubic bone.

The word “dystocia” comes from the Greek “dys” meaning “difficult, painful, or abnormal” and “tokos” meaning “birth.” The birthing process can be obstructed if:

  • The baby is abnormally large
  • The mother’s pelvis is particularly small
  • There are irregularities in the birth canal ( irregular shape, tumor, or previous injury)
  • The fetus was abnormally positioned in the womb before the process

Shoulder dystocia occurs in approximately 1% of vaginal births. Some risk factors for shoulder dystocia include:

  • The mother’s obesity
  • The mother’s diabetes
  • Birth after the due date
  • Induced labor
  • Tools used by the medical provider (forceps or a vacuum)

Though these factors may play a contributing role, shoulder dystocia is impossible to predict. When it does happens, what the obstetrician or other medical professionals do next – and how quickly – can determine whether or not the infant or the mother sustain serious injuries. 

Speed Is of the Essence


If the baby becomes stuck after the head emerges, the professionals in the delivery room must act quickly to release the baby’s shoulder before the risk of severe injury grows.

Dangerous Oxygen Levels:

It’s crucial that newborns receive sufficient oxygen circulation to the body and organs, before, during, and after birth. If the baby’s head is out of the birth canal, the oxygen in the umbilical cord is affected. And if their shoulders are obstructed, then they are also unable to begin breathing on their own. Timely and appropriate action is needed to prevent brain damage or even death due to lack of oxygen.

Brachial Plexus Injuries:

The brachial plexus is a group of nerves in the shoulder which control movement of the shoulder, arm, wrist, hand, and fingers. If a doctor or nurse applies too much force in trying to dislodge the baby, they can stretch the child’s brachial plexus and cause:

  • Bone fractures
  • Loss of sensation or movement
  • Paralysis
  • Disfigurement
  • Erb’s Palsy, a form of nerve damage that can severely and permanently limit arm use

Obstructed birth complications for the mother include heavy bleeding after the birth and tearing of the uterus, vagina, cervix, or rectum.

Do I Have a Medical Malpractice Case?


Personal injury law relates to those who have been injured, physically or psychologically, as a result of the negligence or wrongdoing of another person, a company, or government agency. In the cases where injury is thought to be the result of improper handling of an infant’s shoulder dystocia, parents may become claimants in a medical malpractice claim against a doctor or other medical practitioner or medical facility.

Typical allegations in shoulder dystocia lawsuits include:

  1. The physician or midwife should have been able to predict that a shoulder dystocia problem was likely to occur, and should have avoided that risk by recommending an elective cesarean section
  2. The doctor or midwife pulled too hard when encountering the blockage and did not use other procedures according to proper standards of care
  3. The practitioners were not alert enough and therefore did not act quickly enough to prevent the damage from occurring

Time is of the essence when it comes to filing a medical malpractice claim, because important evidence can be lost or destroyed. Do you need a lawyer?  Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is my child showing developmental delays or does my child have cerebral palsy, related to a lack of oxygen during birth?
  • Does my child have problems using one of his or her arms or hands?
  • Did doctors or nurses tell me my child’s shoulder had been wedged inside me during delivery?
  • Did I need special care for excess bleeding following the birth of my child?
  • Have my child’s doctors been using corrective measures to limit the effects of a birth injury?
  • Has my child been diagnosed with Erb’s palsy, anoxia, hypoxia, bone fractures, facial paralysis, fetal lacerations, or infant brain damage?

Help from a Local Medical Malpractice Attorney

If you believe your baby was injured due to medical negligence, the first step is to speak with a personal injury lawyer who will first determine if you have a valid case. The attorney will go through a pre-litigation process which includes the following:

  • Studying medical documents
  • Collecting additional evidence, including a witness and expert list
  • Proposing a settlement amount to the medical practitioner’s or the hospital’s insurance company
  • Negotiating a settlement
  • Filing a lawsuit in rare cases where a settlement cannot be reached

Shoulder dystocia can affect a child for the rest of his or her life.  Monetary rewards cannot undo the physical damage, but the legal system offers the best chance for the family to get help with the enormous monetary costs of the ongoing care that the child will need. Give Hensley Legal Group a call or contact us online for a free conversation about your medical malpractice claim.