Baby Stunned at Birth | Any Long-Term Effects To Be Worried About?

| Reviewed By Sarah Schulze, MSN, APRN, CPNP

Bringing a child into the world can be a daunting and possibly unsettling experience for both the mother and the newborn.

Births that require the use of forceps or vacuums, ones that occur rapidly, and those with complications can result in birth asphyxia, or a lack of oxygen to the brain due to distress right before or after birth. Sometimes, this is referred to as a baby being stunned.

Does being stunned at birth have any long-term effects? Any long-term effects depend on the type of complications. Potential effects include cognitive, behavioral, and motor impairments from lack of oxygen to the brain. More serious complications can include poor respiratory function, poor cardiovascular function, and in severe cases, loss of life.

Keep reading to learn more about the risks and probabilities of experiencing this birth complication.

Baby Stunned at Birth

Those first few moments when your baby emerges and the breath of relief when hearing their first cry are all part of the experience, but what happens when the baby doesn’t cry or is in distress, and what does it mean for that child? 

What Does It Mean To Be Stunned at Birth?

Birth asphyxia, sometimes referred to as being stunned at birth, is when the newborn is slow to breathe, move, or cry after entering the world.

Sometimes this is momentary and can be resolved by stimulating the baby to provoke a response. Other times, it’s a cause for concern that will require medical intervention.

What Causes a Baby To Be Born Stunned? 

Babies can be born stunned for many reasons, such as chronic conditions and birth complications. Oftentimes, a baby is born stunned due to fetal distress in the womb.

Fetal distress is when the baby is not receiving enough oxygen during pregnancy or delivery due to a number of complications with the placenta, umbilical cord, or mother.

Treatment for a Stunned Baby

If a child is not crying, breathing, or moving within one minute of birth, doctors will begin resuscitation efforts. Their biggest priority at this point is establishing adequate oxygenation and blood flow.

There are a variety of methods by which doctors achieve this including chest compressions, intubation to assist breathing with a bag or ventilator, dialysis, various medications, and temperature control. 

Typical Apgar Scores for Stunned Babies

The Apgar system assesses five categories in newborn babies – Activity/Muscle Tone, Pulse, Grimace, Appearance, and Respiration.

The doctor then designates a score based on the functionality and efficiency of each of these categories. Babies are assessed both one and five minutes after birth.

A healthy newborn would score 7 and 10 on the Apgar assessment. A stunned baby displaying moderate symptoms would score between 4 and 6. A child with more severe complications would score between 0 and 3. 

Most babies do not score perfectly on the one-minute assessment since they are commonly discolored at birth. However, they typically see significant improvement at the five-minute assessment.

When scores are moderately low at both intervals or when they’re severely low at the first, doctors will take immediate stabilization measures.

Types of Birth Asphyxia

There are many different causes of birth asphyxia and many points in labor at which it can occur. Birth asphyxia can be caused by:

  • Intracranial injury due to the use of a vacuum or forceps. 
  • Intrauterine infections, such as rubella, syphilis, herpes, etc. 
  • Blood incompatibility between the mother and the fetus. 
  • Placental abruption, which is the premature separation of the placenta from the uterus. 
  • Umbilical cord accident, such as a nuchal cord (cord around the baby’s neck), a knot in the cord impeding blood flow, or a prolapsed cord where the cord exits through the vagina ahead of the baby.
  • Cerebral circulation suppression (stroke) caused by improper blood flow to the brain. 
  • Aspiration on amniotic fluid. 
  • Pneumopathy, or noninfectious lung diseases caused by malfunction of the lung tissues. 
  • Fetal distress from prolonged labor. 
  • Fetal malformations of the respiratory tract, cardiovascular tract, etc.

Birth Asphyxia Treatment

Birth asphyxia is treated according to its cause. In some instances, resuscitation efforts succeed, and the baby can breathe on his own. Other times, interventions such as surgery or medications are needed.

Stabilization of the child’s lungs, airways, and breathing patterns is the highest priority in treatment efforts. 

What Happens if a Baby Does Not Cry After Birth? 

If the baby doesn’t cry within one minute of birth, the doctor will try to provoke a response from them. This is typically done by introducing external stimuli such as agitating their feet, back, or sternum.

If efforts to induce a cry fail, they will likely take the baby for examination and keep them for observation. They work quickly to determine the cause and address the issue. 

What Happens if A Baby Does Not Breathe After Birth? 

If your child is born not breathing, doctors will likely whisk them away immediately to begin stabilization efforts. This can include resuscitation, medication, and assisted breathing on a ventilator. 

Every moment without breath is vital. So, even though you want to hold and comfort your baby, it’s best to allow the medical team to aid them. 

Signs of Lack of Oxygen in Baby

The signs of birth asphyxia are as follows:

  • Discoloration of the skin in shades of blue or purple. 
  • Shallow, weakened, or nonexistent breathing. 
  • Weakened, minimal, or nonexistent motor activity. 
  • Slow, weakened, or nonexistent cardiac activity. 

Baby on Oxygen After Birth

The average survival rate for neonate ventilation is around 58% according to one study. While this statistic is worrisome for parents, it’s important to remember that several factors contribute to survival.

Ventilators help give the newborn a better chance. It should also be noted that proper use and management of mechanical ventilators for newborns is absolutely vital to their health and safety. 

Amniotic Fluid in Baby Lungs at Birth

When in utero, babies breathe in amniotic fluid. During birth, the pressure of the birth canal causes the expulsion of the fluid from the lungs. Any remaining fluid is coughed out following exit from the birth canal.

When a newborn cannot fully rid themselves of the fluid, it poses serious complications such as amniotic fluid aspiration. 

Amniotic fluid aspiration is when amniotic fluid in the lungs prevents proper breathing. This can cause serious issues for the baby, such as a lack of oxygen to the brain and extremities as well as pneumonia.

In some cases, the amniotic fluid can contain a substance called meconium. Meconium is the black tarry substance that a baby first poops.

When infants breathe in this substance, it can get lodged in their lungs and airways, which runs the risk of infections developing.

Lack of Oxygen at Birth and Autism

It has long been thought that oxygen restriction at birth was directly linked with autism.

However, it’s important to note that there is not a single cause of autism; rather, it’s likely derived from a combination of factors. These factors are primarily genetic rather than environmental.

There is some controversy as to whether insufficient oxygen at birth causes autism or just symptoms akin to autism. This is because lack of oxygen to the brain can cause cognitive, behavioral, language, and motor delays. 

However, Autism Spectrum Disorder is listed among the potential long-term effects of birth asphyxia. 

Short-Term Effects of Stunned Baby

Here are some effects you may notice alongside or immediately following birth: 

  • Acidosis (high levels of acid in the blood)
  • Respiratory distress
  • Blood clotting
  • High blood pressure
  • Complications with the kidneys

Long-Term Effects of Stunned Baby

Proper treatment greatly reduces the risk of long-term complications. These complications may include: 

  • Cerebral palsy
  • Epilepsy
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder
  • Attention Deficit Disorder
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
  • Intellectual disability
  • Vision and hearing impairments
  • Cognitive, behavioral, language, and motor disorders

Long-Term Effects on Parents of Stunned Baby

Parents endure a range of emotions when their child has difficulty breathing, crying, or moving, and many parents feel like they weren’t properly informed of what was going on during the stabilization process. 

From guilt to anxiety, the consistent looming of an unknown outcome can be terrifying. It’s something that most parents carry with them through life.

It’s vital for parents to acknowledge those emotions, understand that the outcome is most often unrelated to their actions, and seek peace with whatever happens.

Therapy, support groups, or self-therapeutic techniques are great ways to cope with birth trauma. 

How To Minimize the Risk of Baby Being Born Stunned

The risk of birth asphyxia is higher in those aged 20 to 25, those with multiples, and those who’ve had multiple pregnancies. However, there are several things you can do to help lower the risk of your baby being born stunned. 

Give Yourself Time

Getting to the hospital at a good time is incredibly important. Not only is the baby being monitored by a medical team, but the mother is too.

Complications occasionally arise during labor and delivery. So, having a team of trained professionals can ease anxiety and improve outcomes. 

Obtaining Prenatal Care

Consistent monitoring throughout pregnancy can help healthcare practitioners identify important risk factors such as low birth weight, abnormal fetal position, preeclampsia, eclampsia, low blood-oxygen levels, infections, and blood pressure abnormalities.

Early detection can drastically change outcomes. 

Be Open to a C-Section

If your doctor recommends a cesarean section, take that recommendation under advisement. Research has shown that birth asphyxia wouldn’t have taken place in some cases if the mother had a c-section.

This is due primarily to incorrect fetal positioning, the use of forceps and vacuums, and a reduction in maternal and fetal distress. 

Listen to Your Body

If you feel as though something is wrong at any point, communicate those feelings to your OBGYN. They can examine and determine whether there is something potentially harmful occurring to your child.

Stay Calm

We know it’s easier said than done, but one of the best things you can do is stay as calm as possible during labor and delivery. Maternal stress impacts fetal health and can influence how the delivery goes.

So, take deep breaths, communicate with your doctors, and do what makes you comfortable. 

Related Questions: 

Do All Babies Cry at Birth? 

Babies should cry at birth, but not all babies do. Crying helps to expel residual amniotic fluid from the lungs and take in the first breath of air. If a baby does not cry within minutes of birth, medical intervention may be needed. 

Should I Use A Baby Breathing Monitor?

Breathing monitors are incredible tools that can give parents peace of mind. However, they can also become unnecessary stressors if they malfunction or misinterpret bodily stimuli.

Parents can use a breathing monitor if it helps ease anxiety, but they should be physically observant of their children and not reliant on the device. 


Having a baby born stunned can be a difficult experience for parents. However, parents can rest assured that there are medical interventions available for every level of severity to minimize potential damage.

A stunned newborn will likely display short-term effects, but in rare severe cases, lifelong complications or loss of life may occur. 

Free resources exist for parents with birth trauma, those parenting children with disabilities, and those who have experienced loss.