Factors That May Put Your Child at Risk for Developing Cerebral Palsy

Cerebral palsy is the name given to a group of neurological disorders marked by abnormal brain development or complications leading to brain damage during pregnancy, labor, or delivery. While many people think of cerebral palsy as a condition that appears at birth, several possible causes of the disorder exist. While experts once believed that oxygen deprivation was the main cause of cerebral palsy, we now know that it only represents a portion of possible causes. Knowing the risk factors for cerebral palsy can help parents better prepare and mitigate circumstances that could lead to its diagnosis.

Risk Factors for Congenital Cerebral Palsy

The term for cerebral palsy which occurs before or during the birthing process is congenital cerebral palsy. This represents the majority of cases, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hold that only 10% of cases of CP occur after birth. The following risk factors for CP indicate an increased possibility that a child will receive a cerebral palsy diagnosis. Risk factors are separate from causes in that they only represent an increase in the likelihood of having the condition. Common risk factors for cerebral palsy that occurs in the womb include:

  • Prematurity. Infants born before 37 weeks gestation are more likely to receive a diagnosis of congenital CP However; infants born before the 32nd week have the highest risk. Cerebral palsy among premature neonates has increased because the quality of premature infant care has increased, creating greater chances of neonate survival.
  • Birth of multiples – a child who is a twin (or another form of multiple) is more likely to get cerebral palsy, possibly because they must share maternal nutrients with others and they are at higher risk of being born prematurely.
  • Low birth weight. A newborn who is considered to be of low birth weight, characterized by weighing 5.5 pounds or less, is more likely to have cerebral palsy. The risk increases exponentially when the child weighs less than 3 pounds.
  • The presence of certain maternal infections. Any type of infection during pregnancy increases the likelihood of having a child with CP, especially bacterial meningitis and the herpes viruses.
  • Jaundice or kernicterus. Rh incompatibility during pregnancy can lead to CP when not appropriately treated and untreated jaundice can lead to the breakdown of red blood cells and subsequent oxygen deprivation.
  • Uncontrolled maternal medical conditions. Seizure disorders, gestational diabetes, high blood pressure, and other medical conditions can make it more likely that a child will have cerebral palsy, as well as untreated infections such as toxoplasmosis.
  • Infertility treatment. Mothers who become pregnant with the help of infertility treatments are more likely to give birth to multiples, which are in turn more likely to weigh less and be born prematurely.
  • Complications during birth. Any signs of fetal distress or complications during labor or delivery that affect the oxygen supply to the infant can raise the child’s likelihood of a cerebral palsy diagnosis.
Risk Factors for Acquired Cerebral Palsy

Congenital cerebral palsy makes up the vast majority of diagnoses; however a child may acquire the condition. This applies to any brain damage that might occur within the first couple of months after a child’s birth. The risk factors outlined generally relate to a physical injury that results in brain damage. Examples include head trauma or complications from bacterial or viral infections. The most common risk factors associated with acquired cerebral palsy include:

  • Complications with cerebral blood flow. Examples include sickle cell anemia, the presence of neonatal stroke, or a previously undiagnosed heart defect that affects the supply of oxygen to the brain.
  • Traumatic brain injury. Examples include injury sustained through a car accident or an episode of shaken baby syndrome. Child abuse or dropping the baby can cause a significant brain injury that leads to an eventual diagnosis of cerebral palsy.
  • Neonatal infections. The presence of certain serious infections after birth, such as meningitis, encephalitis, or other conditions that lead to the inflammation of the nervous system, can increase the risk of cerebral palsy.

While it's impossible to eliminate every risk factor that could lead to a diagnosis of cerebral palsy, healthcare practitioners and pregnant women can work together to mitigate any risk of harm. Mothers can help by keeping to their prenatal care schedule, as well as following a provider's orders following testing, medication, and nutrition. Providers can help by taking a detailed medical history and providing intervention as needed to combat possible risk factors for cerebral palsy. Close monitoring, thorough diagnostic testing, and applying evidence-based care throughout pregnancy and delivery of a baby will lead to the best outcome.

Both prospective parents and their providers should be aware of the possible complications that put a baby at risk for developing cerebral palsy. Knowledge is one of the most important steps in preventing the occurrence of this complex medical disorder.