Are Forceps Safe for Babies?

Rohan Mathew


Forceps are safe for babies—when used correctly. In this respect, forceps are no different than any other medical device used during labor and delivery. Although many doctors are now using vacuum extractors instead of forceps, there is still a place for forceps in modern delivery rooms.

Why Doctors Use Forceps

Most deliveries don’t require any assistance. Instead, the mother pushes the baby through the birth canal and doctors may turn the baby’s heads or shoulders with their hands, but that’s really it. Doctors will use forceps when encountering substantial difficulties during delivery:

  • The mother is tired from a grueling delivery and cannot push
  • The mother is taking analgesics which inhibit the ability to push the baby out
  • The baby’s vital signs are showing distress, so a prompt delivery is critical
  • The mother has major bleeding
  • The baby presents “breech”—meaning, buttocks first instead of headfirst, so the doctor needs to turn the baby around

When properly used, a doctor can turn a breech baby or help guide the child out of the birth canal. The forceps can also “grip” a child’s head, allowing the doctor to use some force to pull the child out.

An alternative to forceps is a vacuum, which involves attaching a cup to the child’s head. A vacuum provides enough traction so the doctor can move the head to assist with delivery. Although some studies show that use of a vacuum is safer, it also has a higher failure rate than forceps.

Improper Use of Forceps

Forceps are not always the best choice when a baby needs assistance with delivery. If a baby is too premature or the head too large, then forceps should not be used. Indeed, sometimes a C-section or a vacuum extractor is a better choice.

Whether because of doctor inexperience or confusion in the delivery room, the improper use of forceps can end up injuring a child:

  • Skull fractures often result from a doctor applying too much force
  • Eye injuries can lead to blindness
  • Facial bruising can lead to muscle paralysis
  • Brachial plexus injury or shoulder dystocia is often caused by excessive tugging
  • Brain damage, sometimes caused by swelling inside the skull, can result from too much pressure

Some injuries are relatively minor and should heal on their own, even if they inconvenience a baby temporarily. However, other injuries involving the skull or brain require immediate treatment so that brain tissue does not die.

Medical Malpractice & Forceps Injury

Any injury caused by a negligent doctor could be grounds for a malpractice claim. When doctors fail to follow the correct standard of care, they are legally liable for a child’s injuries. Using forceps unnecessarily, or applying too much force, are both examples of malpractice.

Compensation for birth injuries typically includes damages to cover a child’s medical treatment, which in the event of brain injury could be extensive. Someone with a permanent disability could need lifelong care and be unable to work a job when they grow older. Compensation should also cover pain, suffering, and reduced quality of life.

Parents might also qualify for compensation, especially if they need to miss work to care for a child. Because improper forceps use can injure mothers, she might also get her medical bills paid. Anyone who suspects that misuse of forceps has injured them should reach out to a lawyer.