Can a Newborn Have a Stroke?
Yes. A perinatal stroke is a stroke that happens to a baby while in utero or up to a month after birth. Perinatal strokes are especially common during the week surrounding birth (1), and the majority occur during labor and delivery. A recent estimate suggests the incidence of perinatal stroke may be about one in 2800 live births (2).
Perinatal Stroke and HIE
Perinatal stroke is the result of an oxygen-depriving event: either a clot results in reduced flow of oxygenated blood (ischemia) or hemorrhage disrupts normal blood circulation. Similarly, hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy (HIE) is, at its core, an injury caused by a lack of oxygenated blood flow to the brain. Sometimes babies that are diagnosed with HIE will also suffer a perinatal stroke as a result of the HIE; it is very common for them to co-occur.
Types of Perinatal Stroke
There are many types of perinatal stroke; the main factors for classification are as follows (3):
- When the injury occurred: The term fetal stroke describes an event before birth, and neonatal stroke describes an event in the first month of life.
- When the symptoms first appeared: Sometimes, a perinatal stroke has fairly immediate, obvious outcomes, but sometimes the symptoms do not appear until later in infancy.
- What type of stroke the infant has suffered: Strokes can be ischemic (a clot cuts off blood flow to the brain, depriving the infant of oxygen) or hemorrhagic (brain vessels rupture due to too much force exerted on them, causing hemorrhage).
- What blood vessels are affected: Strokes can be caused by a blockage in an artery or a vein.
Risk Factors and Causes
Babies are born with twice as many red blood cells as an adult; this helps them absorb oxygen in the womb, which is a relatively low-oxygen environment. However, it also means that their blood is much thicker than a healthy adult’s, and therefore they are at high risk for blood clots and stroke. The following factors can also contribute to perinatal stroke:
- Trauma to the baby’s head during labor or delivery. If there is pressure on the baby’s head or parts of the womb (umbilical cord, placenta, or uterus), this can lead to oxygen-depriving blood clots and/or hemorrhage, both of which can cause hypoxic-ischemic brain injury and stroke. Birth trauma sometimes occurs due to misuse of birth-assisting tools such as forceps or vacuum extractors, or failure of medical professionals to respond to conditions that put the pregnancy in a high-risk category.
- Dehydration. This can cause blood to thicken and clot.
- Infections such as Sepsis and Meningitis. These can also lead to clotting.
- Congenital defects. Certain abnormalities, such as a hole in the heart, can make it easier for blood clots to pass from other parts of the body up to the brain
The mother’s health can also affect the likelihood of perinatal stroke. Some of the maternal risk factors are diabetes, autoimmune disease, and blood-clotting disorders.
Signs Your Baby is Having a Stroke
Perinatal strokes can be difficult to recognize. The typical symptoms in adults and older children – speech problems, weakness or numbness on one side of the body, etc – do not manifest as clearly because all newborns are unable to talk and lacking in strength and coordination. However, fetal stroke often leads to infant seizures. While seizures also present differently in newborns than in adults, there are some potential indications, such as:
- Breathing problems
- Repetitive eye movements, sucking, or chewing
- Jerking motions
- “Pedaling” movements
As a baby gets older, asymmetrical weakness may become more apparent. They may also begin to favor one hand over the other. Sometimes this is mistaken for right or left “handedness.” However, handedness normally does not develop until a baby is about one year old – earlier, it may be a sign of a stroke.
Because the initial signs and symptoms of a stroke can be very subtle, medical professionals should use additional diagnostic tools if they suspect that a stroke may have occurred. These may include:
- Taking images of the brain through an MRI or CT scan. In rare situations, brain imaging can be done in utero through the use of an ultrasound if there are signs of fetal stroke (4).
- EKG to record heart rhythm
- Blood tests to look for signs of a clotting condition or infection
- Lumbar puncture. This entails taking fluid from the spinal cord. It can reveal signs of brain bleeds or infection (5).
- Magnetic resonance arteriogram (MRA) or a magnetic resonance venogram (MRV) to examine blood vessels.
- EEG monitoring should also be done to look for signs of seizure.
Treatment for Perinatal Stroke
Once a stroke has occurred, there are several ways to prevent additional damage:
- Blood-thinning medications. Babies who have had one ischemic stroke are often at risk for another one because existing brain injury makes the brain’s cells fragile and prone to bleeding. When tissues are prone to bleeding, they are also susceptible to more clotting. Blood thinners decrease the risk of further clots and help stabilize the baby’s condition. However, blood thinners should not be used to treat hemorrhagic stroke; that will only make the baby’s condition worse (4).
- IV fluids to hydrate the baby
- Treatment of any existing heart conditions
- Blood transfusions (4)
The only treatment that researchers have identified that can help repair some of the brain damage caused by fetal stroke and hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy is hypothermia therapy, a process wherein the baby’s brain is cooled down enough to slow metabolism and help the brain repair itself. The effectiveness of the treatment can vary (some children treated with hypothermia therapy show no signs of disability, while others have moderate to severe disability). However, hypothermia therapy has been clinically demonstrated to reduce the level of disability when administered in a timely fashion: within 6 hours of birth, and the sooner the better (6, 7).
Outcomes of Perinatal Stroke
Because nerve cells in newborn brains are still forming connections with one another, if one part of the brain is damaged, certain brain functions may be transferred to other parts of the brain. This plasticity in brain wiring makes it possible for some newborns who have suffered a stroke to grow up with fewer disabilities. However, perinatal stroke can result in complications similar to those caused by other hypoxic-ischemic events. These include seizures, cerebral palsy, intellectual and developmental disabilities, speech delays and language disorders, and more. Each of these conditions requires its own treatments and therapies, which you can explore further by clicking on the links provided.
The information presented above is intended only to be a general educational resource. It is not intended to be (and should not be interpreted as) medical advice. If you have questions about perinatal stroke, please consult with a medical professional.