What is cerebral palsy?
Cerebral palsy is the term for a group of disorders. They can affect muscle tone, posture and/or movement. They can start before, at or after birth.
Cerebral palsy is a life-long disorder that affects people in many ways. The type and severity of cerebral palsy can vary. It can impact a person’s function in different ways.
Cerebral palsy can affect your child’s:
- body movement
- ability to control their muscles
In Australia, 1 in 500 babies are born with cerebral palsy.
Some children with cerebral palsy might also have:
- hearing difficulties
- learning difficulties
- visual difficulties
- intellectual impairments
Other children might have no other problems.
There is no cure for cerebral palsy. But there are treatments and therapies that can improve your child’s quality of life.
What causes cerebral palsy?
Cerebral palsy is probably not one condition with one cause. It is a term that covers many different conditions with many different causes.
For many years, people believed that a lack of oxygen during birth caused cerebral palsy. This seems less likely now.
Researchers believe that a chain of events may combine to damage a baby’s developing brain, rather than one single cause.
Risk factors for cerebral palsy include:
- being born early (premature or preterm)
- low birthweight
- rubella and other viral infections during pregnancy
- bacterial infections during pregnancy
- the baby not getting enough oxygen or nutrients in the womb
- the baby having a blood type that is incompatible with the mother
- injury to the brain
- your baby having a stroke
- severe jaundice shortly after birth
Most cases of cerebral palsy in Australia, are caused by a brain injury. This can happen either during pregnancy or before 1 month of age.
Stroke is the most common cause of cerebral palsy in babies older than 1 month of age. The stroke might happen suddenly or be a complication of a heart condition or surgery.
It isn’t always possible to work out why your child has cerebral palsy.
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. Good medical care during pregnancy and birth can help to reduce the risk that your baby has cerebral palsy.
Cerebral palsy might take some time to show itself. The condition is often noticed when your baby or toddler doesn’t meet their expected development milestones. Babies with cerebral palsy might have:
- muscle stiffness and spasms
- low muscle tone so that they feel ‘floppy’ when picked up
Other signs to look out for include your baby:
- being unable to hold up their own head at the right stage
- being unable to sit up or roll over by 6 months
- having feeding or swallowing difficulties
- preferring to use one side of their body
Toddlers with cerebral palsy may not be walking by 12 to 18 months or speaking simple sentences by 2 years of age.
How is cerebral palsy diagnosed?
Australia offers regular health checks for babies and young children. The child health nurses and doctors who run these checks are good at spotting delays in development. But there are many normal variations between children. Talk to your doctor if you are concerned about your child.
A General Movements Assessment is an examination that can be done from birth until 5 months of age. It is a good predictor of cerebral palsy. In Australia, a growing number of doctors and allied health professionals have been trained to conduct a General Movements Assessment.
Your doctor may also recommend a brain scan such as an MRI scan or a CT scan.
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How is cerebral palsy treated?
Possible treatment options include:
- management of hearing and vision impairment
- occupational therapy
- speech therapy, which can help with eating and drinking as well as speech problems
Your child might need specialist equipment, for example, a walking frame, a wheelchair, special seating, or special footwear.
The Cerebral Palsy Alliance has a detailed list of possible treatments.
Can cerebral palsy be prevented?
Cerebral palsy can’t be prevented or cured.
However, some public health measures help to prevent cerebral palsy. These include:
- car seatbelts
- pool fencing
- rubella vaccinations
There are also a number of interventions for high-risk infants. These can reduce the risk or severity of cerebral palsy. Three examples are:
- A course of steroids given to mothers who are at risk of a preterm birth. Steroids can reduce the risk of preterm babies having cerebral palsy.
- Magnesium sulphate given to mothers who are at high risk of very preterm birth can prevent cerebral palsy.
Cooling newborn babies who have suffered a brain injury due to a lack of oxygen at birth. This can reduce the impact of the brain injury.
Caring for a child with cerebral palsy
It can be very upsetting to discover that there is something wrong with your baby’s health.
There are many different treatments and interventions to help people with cerebral palsy. Some people need a little help, and some need a lot of help. There is a range of support for you and your family.
A team of doctors and therapists can help you and your child.
Where can I get more information about cerebral palsy?
Parenting a child with a disability can present challenges and you will need support.
You can apply for various types of financial support. You might also be able to get practical help through the National Disability Insurance Scheme.
Visit Carer Gateway for more information about free services and support for carers.
You can also find information about cerebral palsy from:
Speak to a maternal child health nurse
Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.
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Last reviewed: August 2022