How can parents spot the signs of cerebral palsy in babies?

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By Luciana Oliveira

Becoming a parent is a joyous occasion, but it also comes with its share of worries. One concern you might have is about your child’s health and development, especially when it comes to birth conditions like cerebral palsy.

Cerebral palsy affects movement and coordination, and it’s a condition that’s best managed when diagnosed early. We understand that this is a sensitive topic, so we’ve created this guide to help you know what to look out for to ensure your child gets the treatment they need.

What is cerebral palsy?

In simple terms, cerebral palsy is a condition that can affect how your child moves. It happens because of damage to the baby’s brain, either before, during or shortly after birth.

There are a few reasons why a child might develop cerebral palsy. These can include:

  • Lack of oxygen during birth: sometimes, complications during birth can lead to a lack of oxygen affecting the baby’s brain. This is often due to issues like umbilical cord problems or prolonged labour.
  • Infections during pregnancy: if the mother gets seriously ill during pregnancy, it can impact the baby’s development. Infections like rubella or cytomegalovirus are particular risk factors for cerebral palsy.
  • Early life infections: conditions like meningitis in a newborn can also contribute to the development of cerebral palsy. It’s crucial to get any high fever or signs of infection in a newborn checked out immediately.
  • Conditions affecting newborn babies: these include brain injuries cased by low blood sugars (hypoglycaemia) or from neonatal jaundice (kernicterus).

Some babies are at a higher risk of developing cerebral palsy than others. For example, if your baby was born prematurely, or if you had twins or triplets, the risk is a bit higher. Babies born before 32 weeks, or those with a low birth weight, are also particularly susceptible.

What symptoms should I look for?

Cerebral palsy can show itself in many ways, as it affects children in various ways. Here are some potential signs to keep an eye on:

Movement and muscle issues

  • Stiff or floppy muscles: if your baby feels unusually stiff or floppy when you hold them, it might be a symptom of cerebral palsy. This can manifest as either a rigidity or a lack of resistance when you move their limbs.
  • Trouble with coordination: difficulty picking up toys or stumbling more than other children their age can be a red flag. The child might also have trouble holding their head up.
  • Delayed milestones: if your baby isn’t sitting up or starting to walk around the same time as other children, it’s worth talking to a doctor. Delays in crawling or even just holding their head up can be early indicators.

Cerebral palsy isn’t just about movement. It can also affect other areas, such as:

  • Feeding problems: babies with cerebral palsy can struggle with breast and bottle feeding. Your child might also drool excessively.
  • Seizures: any form of shaking or fits should be immediately checked out.
  • Sleep issues: children with cerebral palsy often have trouble falling or staying asleep. The child might wake up frequently or have irregular sleep patterns.
  • Swallowing: if your baby has trouble swallowing, it’s worth having this checked out. This can include coughing or choking during feeding.
  • Vision and hearing: issues like not responding to sounds or lights can also be indicative of cerebral palsy. They might not follow a toy with their eyes or react to loud noises.
  • Speech delays: if your child isn’t making the usual baby sounds or starting to form words, it might be a concern. They might also have trouble understanding simple instructions.
  • Learning difficulties: these might only become clear when your child starts school, but early intervention can help.

Early signs: what to watch for

The sooner you catch any signs, the better. Early treatment can make a big difference in your child’s life. The symptoms of cerebral palsy can present differently depending on the child’s age, so parents should be looking for different signs as their baby grows: 

For infants younger than six months:

  • Your baby might feel either too stiff or too floppy when you hold them
  • When you lift your baby while they’re lying on their back, their head might lag or fall backwards
  • Your baby overextends their back or neck, as if pushing away from you when held
  • When you pick your baby up, their legs might stiffen and cross over each other

For infants aged between six and 10 months:

  • Your baby doesn’t roll over in either direction when lying down
  • Your baby might struggle to bring their hands together or to their mouth
  • Your baby reaches out with one hand while the other remains clenched into a fist

For infants older than 10 months:

  • Your baby might crawl in an uneven manner, dragging one hand or leg behind them
  • Instead of crawling on all fours, your baby might move around by hopping on their knees, or pulling themselves forward with their hands while sitting

It’s also important to remember that there are several different forms of cerebral palsy, all of which have slightly different definitions and symptoms:

  • Spastic cerebral palsy – the most common type, this is characterised by stiff and jerky movements due to muscle stiffness and joint contracture
  • Dyskinetic cerebral palsy – this involves uncontrolled, slow, writhing movements, affecting the hands, arms, feet and legs. It can also affect the face and tongue, causing grimacing and drooling
  • Ataxic cerebral palsy – this type affects balance and coordination, leading to problems with movements that require precision, like writing
  • Mixed cerebral palsy –  this combines the symptoms of several forms of cerebral palsy, most commonly dyskinetic and spastic cerebral palsy

What treatments are available?

If you do find out that your child has cerebral palsy, it’s important to know that there’s a lot of support available. Treatments can include:

  • Physiotherapy: this helps improve movement and strength. It’s often one of the first steps in treatment.
  • Speech and language therapy: this can help with speaking and swallowing. It’s not just about talking; it can also help with eating.
  • Occupational therapy: this teaches everyday skills like eating and getting dressed. An occupational therapist can also help adapt your home to make things easier for your child.
  • Medication: some medicines can help manage symptoms like muscle stiffness. These can include muscle relaxants or medications to control seizures.
  • Educational support: special learning plans can help your child at school. This can include specialised teaching methods, or the use of assistive technology.

If you think that a mistake during your child’s birth led to cerebral palsy, you might want to consult a lawyer with expertise in medical negligence.

Cerebral palsy can occur even if all of the necessary medical procedures and protocols are followed closely. However, there are also occasions when a child will sustain brain damage during labour because of a mistake or negligent care by a doctor or midwife.

If a doctor or midwife who was involved in the birth of your child provided substandard care, and your child develops cerebral palsy as a result, you may be entitled to claim compensation. This will enable you to finance any care and support your child requires for the rest of their life.

All of this can feel like a lot to take in, especially for new parents. But remember, early diagnosis and treatment can make a world of difference for your child. By educating yourself about the condition and ensuring you know what to do if your baby is affected, you will be helping to ensure they have the best possible quality of life and are able to manage their condition.

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Luciana joined our team as a mum blogger in 2020. A dedicated mum to a lively daughter and a dog, Luna, Luciana brings authenticity and passion to every post. Her expertise in parenting and lifestyle topics offers practical, relatable advice for real-life situations.

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