The birth canal contains bacteria, especially if the mother is suffering from an active infection. At or around the time of birth, the baby can ingest or aspirate the infected fluid in the birth canal, and bacteria or viruses can get into their lungs and bloodstream. When the baby is exposed to infectious agents, the baby can become sick during childbirth or within the first few days of life. As the bacteria or viruses multiply, the baby often becomes very ill quickly. Rapid detection and treatment of infections during and after birth result in better outcomes for the newborn baby.
Group B streptococcus (GBS) is a common type of bacterium that can cause a variety of infections in newborns, such as sepsis, pneumonia, or meningitis. Babies usually get the bacteria from their mothers during birth, especially if the mother hasn’t been treated in a proper or timely manner with antibiotics. Babies with GBS often show symptoms of infection within the first week of life, although some develop symptoms weeks or months later. Symptoms vary and might include fever, difficulty breathing, trouble feeding, lethargy, listlessness, or unusual crankiness.
Another type of infection involved in childbirth is chorioamnionitis, which is also referred to as intra-amniotic infection. Chorioamnionitis is a bacterial infection that occurs before or during labor. The name is derived from the membranes surrounding the fetus, including the chorion, which is the outer membrane, and the amnion, which is the fluid-filled sac – the “itis” refers to inflammation. Chorioamnionitis occurs when bacteria infects the chorion, the amnion, and the amniotic fluid around the fetus. Chorioamnionitis often leads to a preterm birth or serious infection in the mother and the baby. When the infection is severe enough or goes untreated, it can cause brain damage to the baby.