What are the Early Signs That a Child may Have Cerebral Palsy?

woman with babyThe first signs of cerebral palsy are often apparent within the first few months of a child's life. Even if parents do not get a specific diagnosis until toddlerhood, most suspect an issue when a child fails to meet important motor milestones in infancy.

Babies may all develop at different rates, but most achieve milestones in a predictable pattern. Most toddlers, for example, walk by the age of 15 months, and most infants can roll over in one direction by 6 months. Wide variability exists from child to child, but providers look at delayed motor milestones as the first indications of a potential problem.

When a child fails to meet expected milestones within an established time frame, he or she may be diagnosed with a developmental delay. Certain risk factors, such as prematurity, put children at a higher risk of a developmental delay. However, other conditions, such as cerebral palsy, may also cause children to experience delays in motor milestones or miss them altogether.

Regular child visits play an integral role in screening for developmental delays or symptoms that could prove potentially problematic. Specifically, a health care provider will examine a child's muscle tone, which can be an early symptom of cerebral palsy.

Depending on the type of cerebral palsy that a child has, he or she may present as hypertonic or hypotonic. Hypertonia is high muscle tone that may cause a child to appear stiff or rigid. As he or she develops, his or her movements may appear jerky or constrained.

Hypotonia, on the other hand, refers to low muscle tone. Children with hypotonia may appear floppy and struggle to meet milestone such as sitting up or rolling over on time.

Children with cerebral palsy may also initially present with hypotonia that progresses to hypertonia after the first couple months of life.

Parents should be on the lookout for potential warning signs within the first year of life:

  • A baby that feels exceptionally stiff or floppy
  • A baby that cannot hold his or her head up while lying on the stomach or in a supported, sitting position
  • No rolling over or supported sitting by 6 months
  • Difficulty feeding or swallowing
  • Preference of one side of the body
  • Poor reflexes or posture
  • Infantile reflexes that don't disappear
  • Muscle spasms

In some cases, symptoms of cerebral palsy will not present until toddlerhood. Parents should be aware of warning signs that might present in older babies and toddlers:

  • No walking by 12-18 months
  • Speech delay or no simple sentences by 24 months

Failure to reach these milestones alone is not necessarily indicative of cerebral palsy. Many explanations for developmental delays exist, and some children simply need more time to develop than others. However, it's important to discuss any concerns with a doctor as soon as possible. The earlier a child receives a diagnosis and begins comprehensive treatment for cerebral palsy, the better his or her outcomes will be.

When to See a Doctor

The earliest signs of cerebral palsy are often physical, so this is what parents keep an eye out for. However, the condition may also manifest in other developmental areas such as speech, cognitive, or social-emotional. Children who lag in physical development often receive prompt treatment from their pediatricians and receive a timely referral to appropriate specialists. However, children who struggle cognitively or socially may not receive intervention until well into toddlerhood.

A good rule of thumb for parents is to speak with a healthcare provider whenever anything seems amiss. When a child fails to progress at an expected rate in any area, it could be a sign of a problem. Any parent who suspects a developmental issue with their child should promptly contact a doctor.