Neonatal encephalopathy describes central nervous system dysfunction related to brain injuries in babies born at 35 weeks of gestation or later. It is an uncommon syndrome that is sometimes associated with cerebral palsy, hydrocephalus, brain damage and seizure disorders. Still, when promptly identified and treated, it’s possible for babies with neonatal encephalopathy to live healthy lives with no long-term brain damage or medical complications.
Neonatal Encephalopathy Causes
The most common cause of neonatal encephalopathy is a shortage of oxygen to the baby during birth or pregnancy. When oxygen deficiency is to blame for neonatal encephalopathy, this syndrome may be referred to as hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy (HIE).
Other possible causes of neonatal encephalopathy include:
- A congenital brain abnormality
- An infection in the mother’s womb during pregnancy
- A metabolic disorder, such as phenylketonuria
- Intracranial or extracranial hemorrhaging (brain bleeding)
Neonatal Encephalopathy Symptoms
The signs and symptoms of neonatal encephalopathy may be mild or severe depending on each baby’s unique case. Most babies with this syndrome present one or more of the following symptoms immediately after birth:
- An absent or quiet cry
- Respiratory problems
- Poor reflexes
Additional signs and symptoms of neonatal encephalopathy include:
- Difficult feedings
- Neck stiffness related to meningitis
- Organ failure
- Spastic or stiff muscles (hypertonia)
- Unusually floppy arms or legs (hypotonia)
- Poor Apgar scores (a test used to summarize risk of infant mortality)
Neonatal Encephalopathy Diagnosis
The signs of neonatal encephalopathy are often recognized shortly after birth during a routine medical examination. In these instances, the baby is transferred to a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) for specialized evaluation and treatment. In other cases, children may not be diagnosed until later in childhood when key developmental milestones are missed.
Diagnosing neonatal encephalopathy typically involves a combination of neuroimaging tests, physical examinations and clinical labs.
Neonatal Encephalopathy Treatments
A full scope of diagnostics and treatment for neonatal encephalopathy is available at Tampa General Hospital’s Women’s Institute. Each child’s unique care plan will vary, but common treatment approaches to this syndrome include therapeutic hypothermia (brain cooling) immediately following birth and medication to control seizures, address blood clotting issues or clear infections.