Last updated Oct. 18, 2017.
Sometimes the baby needs a little help getting through the birth canal. A difficult labor may be caused by an unusual birth position, high birth weight, the anatomy of the mother’s pelvis and birth canal, and other maternal and fetal health conditions.
Prolonged labor is painful and exhausting and can be dangerous to the baby. That means doctors want to get the baby delivered within a certain amount of time. They may use vacuum extraction or help delivery along with forceps. While those devices can speed up delivery, they also increase the risk of birth trauma.
Here’s what you need to know about vacuum extraction, forceps delivery, and their associated risks. If your baby has been injured by either method, you may be entitled to compensation.
Vacuum Extraction vs. Forceps Delivery
When would you need a vacuum extraction or forceps delivery? Your doctor may want to use vacuum extraction or forceps when your labor has “stalled.” That means you’re still in labor and you’re still pushing, but you’re not making progress toward actually delivering the baby. First, you may be running out of energy. Labor is also stressful for the baby and the physician may want to move the delivery along if your little one’s heart rate is indicating a high level of stress.
These techniques are typically performed in hospitals or in birth clinics where a C-section may be performed. If assisted vaginal delivery does not succeed in getting the baby out through the birth canal, you may need a C-section.
Delivery assistance is quite common; about 1 in 20 vaginal deliveries in the U.S. end up using some form of assistance. Vacuum extraction is becoming increasingly favored over forceps, but both techniques are still in use.
A vacuum extraction involves placing a small, flexible, round cup to your baby’s head in the birth canal. A small electrical or handheld pump is used to create suction so that the cup holds securely to the baby’s head. The doctor can then pull gently on the cup to guide the baby down the birth canal as you push. This technique can only be used if the baby is born headfirst and is at full term; it can be dangerous for premature babies.
Vacuum extraction is also called “ventouse,” from the French word for “suction cup.”
A forceps delivery is similar to a vacuum extraction. Instead of a suction cup, the doctor will insert a pair of forceps (spoon-shaped tongs) into the birth canal and gently grasp the sides of the baby’s head. She’ll use the tongs to gently pull the baby out as you push.
Forceps delivery may be used for babies in abnormal birth positions and for premature babies.
When does a forceps or vacuum delivery cause brain damage?
Both vacuum extraction and forceps delivery are generally safe for both mother and baby. Both techniques can cause bruising on the baby’s head; it may look scary but is generally harmless and will fade within a few days.
The bruise caused by ventouse is called a cephalohematoma and may increase your child’s risk for mild jaundice as the blood that makes up the bruise breaks up. The pressure of a vacuum extraction can also break minor blood vessels in the baby’s eyes. This is called retinal hemorrhage; it sounds scary but it’s not serious and will clear up in a few days or a week.
In addition to these relatively minor risks, vacuum extraction and forceps delivery can cause serious birth trauma. The suction can cause bleeding in the skull or even a skull fracture. Those injuries can cause permanent brain damage and put your child at risk for lifelong physical and intellectual disabilities.
Ventouse (vacuum extraction) increases the risk that the baby’s shoulders will get stuck after the head is delivered, which can cause broken collarbones and injuries to the brachial plexus nerves. Broken collarbones typically heal quickly and completely. Brachial plexus injuries may or may not heal, depending on the severity of the damage to the nerves.
Forceps delivery can also cause skull fractures, skull bleeding, and bruising on the face and head. It may also damage the cranial nerves, resulting in facial paralysis. This type of nerve damage is usually temporary, but serious damage is permanent.
In some cases, the use of forceps may damage the baby’s brain and cause seizures.
Forceps Delivery Risks to Mother
Delivery assistance devices aren’t just hard on the baby. They also pose certain risks to the mother. Most importantly, they can cause tears in the tissue between the vagina and the anus. This is painful and requires stitches to repair.
In some cases, your doctor may perform an episiotomy, a procedure in which that tissue is cut with a scalpel, before using a delivery assistance device. This ensures that the cut is clean and can easily be stitched back together.
This type of tearing can also happen in an unassisted vaginal delivery, but the risks are higher with a vacuum extraction and highest of all with a forceps delivery.
What are my legal options if I’m injured?
Most injuries associated with delivery assistance devices are mild and will clear up on their own. Some are unavoidable and not the fault of the doctor or other medical care providers. Some injuries, however, are caused by the negligence of a medical care provider. A doctor who places the forceps improperly, pulls too hard, or twists your child’s neck during delivery may be acting negligently and putting your child at risk.
In the hands of an inexperienced or untrained physician, a delivery assistance device can cause you and your little one serious injuries. If you or your child were injured by a vacuum extraction or forceps delivery, you may be entitled to compensation for medical bills and other costs. This type of injury is one of the most common reasons for birth injury lawsuits.
If your child was injured by a delivery assistance device, please reach out to Safe Birth Project to learn more about your options.