Written by Timothy Okooboh
As a pharmacist, I’ve been privileged to work in a mental healthcare facility for the last two months. And I’ve seen children with serious health challenges affecting their normal development because they experienced a problem with breathing immediately before, during or after birth. This unfortunate event is known as birth asphyxia.
Asphyxia means reduced oxygen supply into the body (especially, the brain). Birth asphyxia is also a major cause of infant death and the children usually have low Apgar scores.
Information is key—certain things happen during pregnancy that can increase the risk of breathing problems in a child before, during or after delivery. Every woman ought to be informed about them, as every child deserves a normal living experience and should be protected right from pregnancy.
But what could make a child experience asphyxia at birth? Why would this unfortunate event at the start of a child’s life affect his or her development in so many ways? Most importantly, how can the risk of birth asphyxia be reduced? At the end of this article, you will find out.
What is birth asphyxia
Birth asphyxia is the inability of a baby to breathe properly during or after delivery. The difficulty to breathe well reduces oxygen supply to organs such as the heart, lungs, kidneys, brain, etc.
However, the effect it has on the brain of the child is of most concern. This is because brain damage as a result of birth asphyxia can lead to serious health problems. They include cerebral palsy, epilepsy, learning difficulty, psychosis or schizophrenia, hyperactivity disorder, attention deficits, hearing and vision impairment.
So, that child in your neighborhood who suffers from cerebral palsy or any mental or neurological disorder may have experienced breathing difficulty at birth. Sadly, the resulting health challenges may last for a lifetime.
Causes of birth asphyxia
Certain things could happen at childbirth that may cause problems with oxygen supply to a baby. They include:
- Prolonged labor
- Breech birth: This is when the bottom of the baby comes out before the head during delivery.
- Abruptio placentae or ( placental abruption): This is when there’s a premature separation of the placenta from the uterus.
- Excess use of oxytocin to aid delivery. In case of a difficult delivery, oxytocin is administered to facilitate labor.
- Sedating the mother through anesthesia such as during cesarian section. Anesthesia may affect the mother’s breathing which can also harm the baby.
- Rupture of the uterus
The above-mentioned causes may be brought about by the following risk factors:
- Lack of antenatal care.
- Taking alcohol and smoking during pregnancy.
- Low maternal blood pressure.
- Pre-eclampsia or eclampsia.
Pre-eclampsia is a condition in which there’s hypertension in pregnancy coupled with proteins in urine. In eclampsia, hypertension causes seizures in pregnancy.
- Very young mothers. Young mothers such as teenage girls are prone to prolonged labor.
- Maternal anemia
- Excess loss of blood (hemorrhage) before and during delivery.
- Low birth weight
How to reduce the risk of birth asphyxia; what every woman should know
Medical experts involved in childbirth, perform a lot of lifesaving procedures that either help to prevent birth asphyxia or resuscitate a child affected by it. Therefore, they deserve some credit.
However, every woman needs to be aware of simple health tips that can help reduce the chance of their babies experiencing breathing disorder at birth. This can help to prevent the occurrence of cerebral palsy, learning difficulty, and other health issues that may arise when birth asphyxia occurs.
These are what every woman should know:
- Never miss your antenatal care appointments.
Adequate antenatal care can help to reduce the risk of birth asphyxia. During this period, a pregnant woman receives iron and folic acid; two minerals that can help prevent maternal anemia. Also, she receives proper care that can help prevent or manage malaria in pregnancy (a major cause of low birth weight) and hypertension.
Therefore, every woman should commence antenatal care immediately she is pregnant. WHO now recommends at least 8 antenatal care visits to the hospital during pregnancy.
- Do your best to reduce stress at pregnancy.
Too much Stress during pregnancy not only has harmful effects on the mother but also on the baby. It can cause low birth weight, poor mental development and respiratory distress to the newborn.
Stress can take several forms. It may be job stress, domestic stress, the death of a loved one, depression, or even fear of something bad happening during childbirth. But a pregnant woman must learn to relax, be calm, sleep well, exercise moderately, and not take life too seriously, that is, not worry too much.
- Don’t take any drug except given by your doctor or pharmacist.
Drug use in pregnancy is risky and should be avoided except when there’s a need for it. Research has shown that drugs of abuse such as cocaine, nicotine, alcohol, etc, can cause neurodevelopmental damage to the fetus including respiratory distress and mental disorder.
Even medicines such as antibiotics and painkillers used for treating diseases must be taken with care. Some of them must not be taken in pregnancy. So, inform your doctor or pharmacist before taking any drug. This is very important. If this is ignored, the consequences may be regretful.
- Eat a healthy diet.
A healthy diet for a pregnant woman is a healthy diet for everyone. However for a pregnant, good food is a necessity. Poor diet intake during pregnancy can lead to malnutrition of the fetus, which can cause low birth weight and high-risk birth.
She should eat foods rich in fruits, green leafy vegetables, and fish. But low in red meat, sugar, processed or canned foods, fried foods, salt and, soft drinks.
- Deliver your baby in a hospital with well trained medical personnel.
While there’ve been some successful births outside a hospital, it’s still very important for every woman to deliver in a health facility with well trained medical personnel. When issues arise, they are in a better position to save the mother and her baby.
Birth asphyxia is a medical emergency and medical emergencies are best handled by medical experts.
Putting it all together
Birth asphyxia is a situation in which a child doesn’t receive enough oxygen supply at birth. It can affect the brain and bring about several health challenges such as learning difficulty, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, etc. It is also a major cause of infant death.
Certain things happen during pregnancy that may increase the risk of birth asphyxia.
But imagine a woman who receives adequate antenatal care. Imagine a woman who doesn’t take any drug during pregnancy except given by her doctor. Imagine a pregnant woman who eats healthy foods and rests well. And after all this, imagine that she delivers her baby in a health facility with trained medical experts.
That woman would have done her part to have a positive pregnancy experience and reduce the risk of birth asphyxia.
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