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 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. In Australia, 1 in 500 babies is born with cerebral palsy.
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 other problems. There is no cure for cerebral palsy, but treatments and therapies can improve your child’s quality of life. There is also a range of support 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 that a chain of events may 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.
- 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
Australia has a system of regular health checks for babies and young children. The child health nurses or GPs 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.
The general movements assessment is an 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
Many different treatments and interventions 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
Your child might need special braces or mechanical aids. With the right management of their condition, many children with cerebral palsy can lead fulfilling lives.
The Cerebral Palsy Alliance has a detailed list of possible treatments.
Support and information
You can apply for various types of financial support and may be able to get practical help through the National Disability Insurance Scheme. You can also call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby on 1800 882 436 for advice and emotional support, and visit Carer Gateway for more information about how to get support.
You can also find information about cerebral palsy from:
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Last reviewed: April 2020