Vision Impairments from Birth Injuries

Common causes of visual impairments and blindness in children include prenatal factors (genetic issues and birth defects) as well as diseases and accidents (1). Many parents do not realize that vision impairments can also stem from birth injuries. The term “birth injury” is used to refer to any medical complication or error that causes harm to a baby during or near the time of birth. This includes oxygen deprivation (birth asphyxia), trauma, and infections, among other issues.

Research shows that many causes of childhood visual impairment are preventable (2), and birth injuries are no exception. Unfortunately, many of the birth injuries that lead to visual impairment only occur because medical professionals miss opportunities to intervene, or they perform other negligent actions. If their negligence causes permanent visual impairment, it constitutes medical malpractice.

What kinds of vision impairments can be caused by birth injuries?

The following types of vision impairments often stem from birth injuries:

Cortical visual impairment and optic nerve lesions

Cortical visual impairment (also known as cerebral visual impairment or CVI) and optic nerve lesions are common causes of childhood vision issues in developed countries. These conditions are often caused by complications associated with premature birth, including oxygen deprivation/birth asphyxia (1), hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy (HIE)periventricular leukomalacia (PVL)neonatal hypoglycemia, and meningitis.

Strabismus, or eye misalignment, is common in children with CVI. CVI also often co-occurs with cerebral palsy (CP) or other developmental disabilities that can be caused by birth injuries (3).

Ophthalmia neonatorum

If maternal infections are not promptly diagnosed and managed, they can spread to the infant. This typically occurs during the process of birth, once the baby leaves the protection of the amniotic sac and comes into contact with the birth canal (4). If an infant’s eyes become infected in the birth canal, they may develop a condition called ophthalmia neonatorum (neonatal conjunctivitis).

Ophthalmia neonatorum can easily be prevented if medical professionals do proper testing for sexually transmitted infections during pregnancy and provide the necessary treatments. Doctors should also clean infants’ eyes immediately after birth with a topical antibiotic or antiseptic (1). If not properly treated, this condition can cause permanent visual impairments/blindness.

If an infant shows signs of ophthalmia neonatorum, physicians should run tests to figure out the underlying cause of this infection (such as gonorrhea or chlamydia) (5). They should also determine whether the infection has spread to other parts of the body, such as the lungs (pneumonia) (1).

Retinopathy of prematurity

Retinopathy of prematurity (ROP) causes 60% of all cases of blindness in middle-income countries, and up to 15% in developed countries (1). Infants who are premature or have very low birth weights are at higher risk for this condition (1, 6). If doctors fail to do all they can to prevent premature birth , and this causes ROP, it constitutes malpractice.

ROP can also be caused by exposure to oxygen. Oxygen can be a lifesaving treatment for newborns with respiratory issues and other conditions, but it can lead to retinopathy of prematurity and subsequent blindness if it is not carefully controlled (1). Over the years, research has indicated that reducing the level of oxygen provided to premature babies can help to prevent ROP.

Infants with mild cases of ROP may recover without medical treatment. However, in more severe cases, ROP can lead to vision impairments (such as retinal detachmentmyopiastrabismusamblyopia, and glaucoma) or blindness. In the United States, about 400 to 600 infants become blind from ROP each year (6).

Legal help for vision impairments resulting from birth injury

Vision impairments and other birth injuries often stem from acts of medical malpractice near the time of birth. For example, doctors and nurses may fail to monitor for and/or appropriately respond to signs of fetal distress. These are signs that a baby is being deprived of oxygen and is in need of immediate intervention (such as an emergency C-section). Other problematic behaviors include deviating from the standard of care for a high-risk pregnancy, inducing labor when it is not safe to do so, or using risky birth-assisting tools such as forceps and vacuum extractors when they are not indicated.

The attorneys at ABC Law Centers have decades of experience litigating birth injury/infant malpractice cases. To find out if your child’s condition may be the result of medical malpractice, contact our firm for a free case review. We give personal attention to each child and family we help, and clients pay nothing unless we win.

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Helpful resources

  1. Gogate, P., Gilbert, C., & Zin, A. (2011). Severe visual impairment and blindness in infants: causes and opportunities for control. Middle East African journal of ophthalmology18(2), 109.
  2. (Gilbert, C., Rahi, J. S., & Quinn, G. E. (2003). The epidemiology of eye disease.
  3. Cortical Visual Impairment Symptoms & Causes: Boston Children’s Hospital. (n.d.). Retrieved February 5, 2020, from