What is Shoulder Dystocia?

A baby with shoulder dystocia is wrapped in a blue blanket and hat, sleeping while holding a teddy bear.

Childbirth is not always straightforward — sometimes a shoulder can get in the way. Shoulder dystocia occurs in nearly 1 to 8 out of every 1,000 babies born each year. It is one of the most common birth injury cases we see as birth injury lawyers and is considered an emergency during delivery. As a recent or expectant parent, you may be confused as to what this condition is and what it means for you and your child. We are here to answer your questions — but first, what is shoulder dystocia?

Shoulder Dystocia Defined 

Shoulder dystocia is defined as a condition where one or both of the baby’s shoulders becomes caught on the mother’s pelvic bones, causing a necessity for certain maneuvers to be performed by the delivering provider in order to safely deliver the baby. These maneuvers are performed when gentle lateral traction on the baby’s head does not work in delivery. If a physician fails to perform the maneuvers properly or applies excessive force on the baby’s head or neck during delivery, the baby can suffer severe injuries including permanent nerve damage to the affected arm, hand and shoulder. This nerve damage is referred to as a brachial plexus injury. The mother may also experience injuries during these instances, including hemorrhages and tearing of the perineum. In particularly severe cases, either the mother or the child can die due to blood loss or oxygen deprivation.

Risk Factors

This condition typically cannot be predicted. However, there are certain risk factors that your obstetrician should keep an eye on before and during delivery in order to prevent a brachial plexus injury from occurring. Some common risk factors include:

  • Large or multiple babies. Overweight or overdue babies signal that delivery will be a bit more complicated. The same goes for multiple babies, as they may get stuck in the mother’s pelvis.
  • Gestational diabetes and maternal obesity. Babies born to overweight mothers or those with gestational diabetes may be larger babies with wider shoulders.
  • A contracted or flat pelvis. The shape of a mother’s pelvis impacts the ease of delivery — those with a flat shape carry a higher risk of experiencing shoulder dystocia.
  • The use of tools such as vacuum extractors or forceps during delivery. These tools pull the baby out of the birth canal, but may accidentally lodge their shoulder in the mother’s pelvic area.
  • Mothers with a history of shoulder dystocia in prior deliveries. 

Preventing Shoulder Dystocia 

During pregnancy, obstetricians should diagnose conditions like shoulder dystocia as they arise, perform consistent screening procedures and provide proper prenatal care. A Cesarean section delivery may need to be planned to avoid shoulder dystocia altogether. However, if shoulder dystocia occurs during delivery, your obstetrician should:

  • Act in a calm and professional manner to manage the situation.
  • Use only gentle traction to deliver the baby and avoid the use of excessive pulling on the baby’s head and neck. 
  • Perform specific maneuvers proven to release the shoulder from the pelvic bone. 
  • Seek help from other healthcare providers if necessary. 

Contacting a Birth Injury Lawyer

If a doctor fails to monitor your pregnancy or provide necessary care, it is considered a breach of the standard of care. To determine if your doctor can be held accountable for their missteps, it is necessary to evaluate what could have been done to prevent the injuries. The birth injury lawyers at Zevan Davidson Roman are well-versed in all facets of birth injury cases and can help you determine what went wrong. While no dollar amount can cure the damage left by shoulder dystocia, a judgment or settlement can help your child improve his or her quality of life — contact our birth injury attorneys today for a free consultation.

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