Cerebral palsy is a physical disability caused by damage to the brain before, during, or soon after birth. It is very upsetting to discover that there is something wrong with your child’s health. This page provides information about cerebral palsy to help you handle the news and get the help you need.
What is cerebral palsy
Cerebral palsy is a life-long physical disorder that affects people in many different ways. It covers a group of disorders affecting a child’s body movement, ability to control their muscles, coordination, reflexes, posture, balance and sometimes ability to communicate.
Cerebral palsy can be so severe that walking is difficult, or it can be so mild that it is unnoticeable to most people. Some children with cerebral palsy might have epilepsy, hearing, learning and visual difficulties and intellectual impairments. Others might have no others problems. Cerebral palsy can’t be cured, but the problems it causes can be.
In Australia, 1 in 500 babies is born with cerebral palsy. There are treatments and therapies that can improve your child’s quality of life and there is a range of support available for you and your family.
What causes cerebral palsy?
Cerebral palsy is caused by damage or injury to the baby’s brain before, during or after birth. It isn’t always possible to work out why or how your child developed it. It is probably not one condition with one cause, but a term that covers many different conditions with many different causes.
Researchers believe there may be a chain of events that combine to damage a baby’s developing brain, rather than one single cause. Risk factors include:
- being born early
- low birthweight
- rubella and other viral infections in the pregnant mother
- the baby not getting enough oxygen or nutrients in the womb
- the baby has a blood type that is incompatible with the mother
- bacterial infections of the pregnant mother or fetus
- injuries to the brain
- severe jaundice shortly after birth
For many years, people believed that lack of oxygen during birth caused cerebral palsy. This seems less likely now. Research shows genetic causes may be stronger than anyone realised.
How do I know if my child has cerebral palsy?
There is no single test to diagnose cerebral palsy. It can’t be detected during pregnancy, but good medical care during pregnancy and birth can help to reduce the risk.
Cerebral palsy might take some time to show itself. Babies with cerebral palsy might have muscle stiffness and spasms, or they might have low muscle tone so that they feel ‘floppy’ when picked up.
The condition is often picked up when a baby or toddler doesn’t meet the expected development milestones for their age. So signs in babies to look out include:
- inability to hold up their own heads at the right stage
- inability to sit up or roll over at the right stage
- difficulty feeding or swallowing
- using one side of their body in preference to the other
Toddlers with cerebral palsy may not reach normal milestones such as walking by 18 months and speaking simple sentences by 3 years old.
The general movements assessment is one examination that can be done until your child is about 5 months old. It is a good predictor of cerebral palsy. Your doctor may also order a brain scan such as an MRI or a CT.
Caring for a child with cerebral palsy
There are many different treatments and interventions than can help people with cerebral palsy. Some need little help, and some need a lot. If your child has significant problems, a team of doctors and therapists can help you and your child live as well as possible.
Possible treatment options include:
- speech therapy, which can help with speech, eating and drinking difficulties
- management of hearing and vision impairment
- occupational therapy
- behavioural therapy or counselling
- special education