Meconium Aspiration: How Serious Is It and How to Spot It


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Becoming a parent is overwhelming enough, but when there are birth complications with your newborn struggling to breathe, it can be even more challenging.

One of those complications is known as meconium aspiration or meconium aspiration syndrome (MAS). While it can be a very serious condition, thankfully, most cases of meconium aspiration are not.

If your newborn is suffering from meconium aspiration, you need to know what you can do to determine if your baby’s condition was caused by medical malpractice or negligence.

What is Meconium Aspiration?

Meconium is essentially the baby’s waste. It’s dark green, thick, and sticky. The baby passes this waste during the early parts of the pregnancy, and then again during the first few days after birth.

Meconium aspiration (the act of inhaling this waste) can occur before, during, or after delivery. A baby’s first inhalation often includes a mixture of both meconium and amniotic fluid.

The problem is if a baby inhales meconium, it can block his or her airway. The trapped meconium then irritates the baby’s airway and makes breathing difficult. 

The amount of meconium a baby inhales, and if it happens before or after delivery, determines how serious the condition is.

What Causes Meconium Aspiration?

While the baby is in the uterus, fluid is moving in and out of the baby’s trachea – the upper part of the airway. If the baby gasps, meconium is often inhaled. Gasping usually occurs due to complications such as umbilical cord compression, other in utero stresses such as hypoxia, maternal or infection. This creates a situation where the baby won’t be able to get enough oxygen before birth.

Meconium aspiration is most often attributed to fetal stress, which is mostly due to the environment in the womb caused by placental problems, significant hypertension, pre-eclampsia and maternal drug use (i.e cocaine or tobacco) and other complications during birth.

A fetus under stress will often experience decreased oxygen intake. This can affect the baby’s intestinal activity and cause anal sphincter relaxation. The sphincter is the valve that controls the flow of feces out of the baby’s anus. When the anal sphincter relaxes, it allows the passage of meconium into the amniotic fluid that’s surrounding the baby.

Even babies who are not under distress during pregnancy or labor still pass some meconium before birth, but when there’s a build-up that’s when complications arise.

Your baby could be at risk for meconium aspiration when:

  • Delivery is long or difficult
  • A baby that is delivered late or post-maturity
  • Underlying conditions within the mother – diabetes, high blood pressure, respiratory issues, and cardiovascular disease
  • Complications involving the umbilical cord during pregnancy
  • Slow or poor growth of the fetus while in the womb

About 25 percent of newborns breathe in amniotic fluid that contains meconium. Only around 11 percent will develop MAS. Babies born before 34 weeks rarely develop the condition.

What are the Symptoms of Meconium Aspiration?

If you’re worried your baby may be suffering from meconium aspiration, look out for these symptoms:

  • Discoloration of the newborn’s skin, as the meconium will often contribute to a shade of blue (from lack of oxygen) or green (from the meconium itself)
  • Breathing difficulties – labored breathing, rapid breathing, or the suspension of breath
  • Low heart rate (before delivery)
  • A low Apgar score – a test given to all newborns to evaluate heartbeat, muscle tone, skin color, breathing, and reflexes
  • Limpness in the newborn
  • Signs that the baby was overdue when delivered, like long nails

How is Meconium Aspiration Diagnosed?

If the baby appears to be having trouble breathing, a doctor should order further tests. A blood gas analysis to see if the baby is receiving enough oxygen or a chest X-ray to determine if there are streaks on the lungs would indicate that he or she has MAS. The doctor can also listen to the baby’s lungs, as certain breathing sounds are common in newborns with meconium aspiration.

If the doctor suspects that the newborn has inhaled meconium, treatment should begin immediately.  

What Should I Do If I Suspect Medical Malpractice Caused My Newborn’s Meconium Aspiration?

If you suspect that medical malpractice contributed to your newborn’s case of meconium aspiration, the experienced lawyers at Ross Feller Casey can help.

Ross Feller Casey has won more major multimillion-dollar birth injury lawsuits than any other firm in Pennsylvania. The firm has a team of top physicians and doctor-lawyers right on staff. This makes us uniquely qualified to handle all types of birth injury cases, including those involving meconium aspiration. Contact us today for your free case evaluation.

About the Author

A leading physician and national medical expert, Dr. Charles H. Bowers, Jr., joined Ross Feller Casey’s Medical Forensic Evaluations Department in 2012.

Charles Bowers

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