Advice Babies

How to spot the signs of cerebral palsy in babies

By Eddie Jones, partner and head of medical negligence, JMW Solicitors

Every baby is unique, and every parent wants nothing more than for their child to be safe, healthy, and happy as they grow up. However, sometimes we can be faced with an unexpected condition, such as cerebral palsy, that can have a lasting impact on our child’s development.

This serious condition occurs as a result of brain damage sustained by the infant around the time of birth or in the newborn period, and can result in lifelong physical and mental impairments. If your child has cerebral palsy, it is important to identify the condition as soon as possible to ensure they are receiving the best care possible.

As such, parents should make themselves aware of the signs and symptoms of cerebral palsy in babies, in order to ensure they know what to do if they find themselves in this situation. 

What is cerebral palsy?

Cerebral palsy is a group of conditions caused by damage or abnormal development of the part of the brain that controls movement, balance and posture. An estimated 30,000 children live with cerebral palsy in the UK, and around 2-2.5 out of every 1,000 babies develop the disorder.

The condition can present itself in a variety of ways, ranging from mild arm or leg weakness to severe muscle spasms that prevent intentional movement. Below are the most common long-term health issues related to cerebral palsy:

  • Physical weakness, stiffness, and problems with muscle tone and muscle spasticity
  • Irregular posture, poor coordination and a lack of fine motor skills
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Vision impairments
  • Problems with speaking and communication
  • Learning disabilities

The exact causes of cerebral palsy cannot always be identified, but it may sometimes result from some form of genetic predisposition or prenatal trauma to the developing brain. The following factors can all contribute to the onset of cerebral palsy:

  • Bleeding in the baby’s brain, or a lack of blood and oxygen supply to the brain during a difficult birth
  • Infections affecting the mother during pregnancy
  • Infections in the baby such as meningitis
  • A serious head injury sustained during infancy
  • Hypoglycaemia (low blood sugars)
  • Kernicterus/hyperbilirubinemia

Common signs of cerebral palsy in babies

There are many signs and symptoms related to cerebral palsy that can be observed at different ages. It is unlikely that you will be able to spot signs of cerebral palsy when the baby is still a newborn, as most of the symptoms tend to develop over the first few years of their life.

Depending on the type of cerebral palsy your child may have, the symptoms to watch for will change as the child gets older:

Infants younger than six months:

  • Your baby is stiff or floppy when held in your arms
  • Your baby’s head sags downwards when picked up from lying on their back
  • When held, your baby overextends their back or neck, as though pushing away from you
  • Your baby’s legs stiffen and become crossed when they are picked up

Infants aged between six and 10 months

  • Your baby does not roll over when lying down
  • Your baby cannot bring their hands together or raise their hands to their mouth
  • Your baby will only reach out with one hand while keeping the other balled into a fist

For infants older than 10 months

  • Your baby’s crawl is lopsided and uncoordinated, dragging some of their limbs behind them
  • Instead of crawling, your baby hops on their knees or drags themselves by their hands in a seated position

Additionally, parents should look out for signs that their child is experiencing developmental delays. If they have not learned to sit after eight months or walk after 18 months, this could potentially be a sign of cerebral palsy or a related disorder.

Treatment options for children with cerebral palsy

Treatment and management of cerebral palsy will vary depending on the individual child’s needs. The following interventions have all been shown to deliver meaningful quality of life improvements for children affected by this condition:

  • Physiotherapy to help them build muscle strength and move more naturally
  • Speech and language therapy to aid them with communication difficulties – this can also help them overcome problems with swallowing
  • Occupational therapy to help them find easier ways of accomplishing everyday tasks, such as going to the bathroom
  • Medication to manage physical symptoms, including stiff or tight muscles
  • Educational support to provide the child with any accommodations they might need, including whether they need to attend special or mainstream school. 
  • Surgery to address orthopaedic problems

If you have reason to believe that your child’s cerebral palsy was caused by medical errors during the pregnancybirth or the newborn period, you should also contact a specialist medical negligence solicitor to see if you have a case for financial compensation. This can help you and your family to cover the costs associated with treatment and equipment, as well as provide access to other additional support services they may need in life.

Ultimately, a timely diagnosis can be instrumental in helping families make the most informed decisions about their child’s care and treatment. Early intervention can also provide parents with an opportunity to discuss treatment options, set realistic goals for their child’s development, and seek professional advice and support.

The potential for a diagnosis of cerebral palsy can be frightening for many parents, but if you suspect your baby may be showing signs of this disorder, seek medical attention straight away, and do not hesitate to ask questions so you can understand all of your options. With early intervention and appropriate care, your child will have every chance to reach their full potential.

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