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Shoulder Dystocia – A Potential Complication During Birth

Shoulder Dystocia – A Potential Complication During Birth

Giving birth is a wonderful experience for many mothers, but not all births go smoothly and many complications can arise when giving birth.

One of the complications that can occur during a vaginal delivery is the occurrence of shoulder dystocia. This happens when the shoulders fail to deliver shortly after the foetal head. After delivery of the head, the anterior shoulder of the baby either cannot pass below or requires significant manipulation to pass below the pubic symphysis.

Shoulder dystocia is believed to occur in approximately 0.5% of births.

Shoulder dystocia is regarded as a medical emergency. If shoulder dystocia occurs, the baby’s shoulders need to be urgently released so that the baby’s body can be delivered and the baby can start breathing.

Some risk factors for shoulder dystocia are believed to include:

  • Large baby
  • Maternal diabetes
  • A previous occurrence of shoulder dystocia
  • Induction of labour
  • Delayed progress of labour

Injuries to both mother and baby are not uncommon when an incidence of shoulder dystocia occurs. For babies, the injuries can include:

  • Brachial plexus injury – when the nerves in the neck which provide movement and feeling to the arm become stretched. 10% of babies who have shoulder dystocia suffer brachial plexus injuries. This injury can result in temporary and sometimes permanent paralysis of the baby’s arm.
  • Fractures of the baby’s arm or shoulder with associated complications.
  • Brain damage if the baby does not get enough oxygen.
  • Death of the baby is also a possible, although uncommon, outcome.

Quite often, doctors and midwives will try a range of non-surgical measures to deliver the baby, before proceeding to an emergency caesarean section. Some of the non-surgical options for treating shoulder dystocia involve:

  • Pressing on the mother’s stomach just above the pelvic bone in an attempt to release the baby’s shoulder
  • Making a cut (episiotomy) to enlarge the vaginal opening
  • Manoeuvring the baby within the birth canal to free the shoulders
  • Repositioning of the mother onto her hands and knees.

Unsurprisingly, shoulder dystocia can also result in significant injury to the mother. Such injuries include:

  • Vaginal tears, which may extend to the rectum (third or fourth degree tear) or vaginal laceration (injury to the vaginal wall).
  • Heavy bleeding (called a postpartum haemorrhage).
  • Emotional trauma

How Can We Help?

At Catherine Henry Lawyers, we have assisted clients who have suffered injuries following the poor management of shoulder dystocia.

If you are looking for information or help in relation to the issues around shoulder dystocia, we can help you navigate the process. Our health law team is highly respected in the area, with specialist knowledge accumulated over 25 years.

Our team can assist you by providing expert advice and legal support regarding your options. Contact us today on (02) 4929 3995 or or visit

*The material provided in our information sheets is for general knowledge only and is not a substitute for independent legal advice. For further information about the issues affecting you, please contact one of our experienced and professional lawyers for expert advice.

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