Cerebral Palsy Causes and Risk Factors

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cerebral palsy occurs in approximately 1 out of every 300 births. In some cases, cerebral palsy (CP) may be caused by medical malpractice or errors made by medical professionals. This includes inadequate response to fetal distress, injury due to prolonged lack of oxygen to the baby's brain, improper use of delivery devices, and more.

Call (800) 995-1212 or get a free case review to learn more about what causes cerebral palsy and how Sokolove Law may be able to help you secure compensation for your child’s care.

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Medical Malpractice and Cerebral Palsy

Sadly, injuries at birth can occur due to a medical mistake or negligence on the part of a medical professional during pregnancy or childbirth, making medical malpractice and cerebral palsy a tragic reality for many families.

Improper care by a doctor, obstetrician, or other health care professional can cause a child to develop cerebral palsy in a variety of different ways, including:

  • Failing to recognize and address an abnormal fetal heart pattern or other signs of fetal distress, which can lead to prolonged oxygen deprivation to the baby’s brain
  • Improperly using delivery instruments like forceps and vacuum extractors, which can result in brain bleeding or skull fracture
  • Not noticing or treating jaundice before bilirubin builds up in the blood, which causes a type of preventable brain damage known as kernicterus
  • Not setting up the delivery room and proper equipment in time for delivery, when every second counts

If you have any reason to believe your child may have been injured due to an error made by a medical professional, get in touch with us without delay.

We have a team of registered nurses on staff who can listen to your story and help determine if you may be able to take legal action over what happened to your child.

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Signs Something May Have Happened During Delivery

Knowing what kind of injury may have led to cerebral palsy can be difficult, especially if medical malpractice or negligence may have played a role.

However, there are some signs that may indicate something went wrong during delivery, like if:

  • The baby received chest compressions at delivery
  • Emergency alarms were activated or a crash cart was wheeled into the room
  • Medical professionals counted the seconds/minutes during the pushing stage or mentioned shoulder dystocia
  • The mother scheduled or planned on receiving a cesarean section (C-section), but the doctor proceeded with a vaginal delivery instead
  • The mother was referred to neurology, early intervention, or physical therapy (PT) upon discharge, even though the baby was not premature
  • The mother was placed in a hands/knees position during labor
  • The mother had to push for more than 4 hours
  • Multiple doctors or a NICU team were present at the delivery

If you think you remember any of these events during your delivery, contact Sokolove Law today — our team of registered nurses can help you determine if something may have gone wrong and what you may be able to do next.

Cerebral Palsy Causes

The causes of cerebral palsy include traumatic injury to the brain before, during, or after birth. In cases of cerebral palsy, the damage occurs in the parts of the brain responsible for motor control, balance, and coordination.

Conditions that can disrupt the healthy development of a child’s brain include:

  • Asphyxiation
  • Brain hemorrhage before birth
  • Compression of the umbilical cord, resulting in low oxygen levels
  • Head trauma during or after birth
  • Lack of oxygen or blood flow to the child’s brain
  • Maternal infections during pregnancy
  • Newborn infections after the child’s birth, including bacterial infections
  • Placenta abruptions (when the placenta completely separates from the inner wall of the uterus before delivery)
  • Untreated jaundice and kernicterus

Different types of brain damage can lead to different types of cerebral palsy. Additionally, the level of disability and developmental delay will depend on the severity of the brain injury and the age of the child when the injury occurred.

Causes of Cerebral Palsy During Birth

Cerebral palsy causes during birth can occur when there is damage to a baby's brain during or shortly after delivery.

Cerebral palsy causes at birth include:

  • Abnormally low blood sugar levels
  • Brain or head trauma
  • Fetal stroke
  • Improper use of delivery instruments like forceps and vacuum extractors
  • Infection of the brain (like meningitis)
  • Maternal infections
  • Meconium aspiration (or when a newborn inhales a combination of meconium and amniotic fluid into the lungs during delivery)
  • Not enough oxygen to the brain during a complicated birth or fetal distress
  • Other types of medical negligence or malpractice
  • Problems with the umbilical cord that could affect the baby’s oxygen supply
  • Untreated jaundice

Causes of Cerebral Palsy in Infants

While it’s more common for causes of CP to occur during pregnancy or delivery, a small number of children develop cerebral palsy shortly after birth, potentially in the delivery room or days later.

Causes of cerebral palsy in infants can include:

  • Brain injury or head trauma
  • Kernicterus, a form of brain damage caused by jaundice that goes untreated
  • Problems with blood flow to the brain
  • Perinatal stroke that occurs within the first month of life
  • Undetected brain infections like bacterial meningitis or viral encephalitis

Risk Factors for Cerebral Palsy in Babies

Risk factors for cerebral palsy in babies include substandard care by the doctor and other health care providers responsible for the safety of the mother and her child during pregnancy, labor, and delivery.

Examples of risk factors for cerebral palsy in babies include:

  • Attempting a vaginal delivery, instead of a cesarean or C-section, with larger babies or babies with a large head or large shoulders that could delay or prolong delivery
  • Blood type incompatibility between the mother and baby
  • Delivering babies in breech positions (when the child isn’t delivered headfirst)
  • Improper use of forceps or vacuum extraction to speed up vaginal delivery, which can cause cuts, severe bruising, or swelling of the baby’s head
  • Maternal fever or untreated infections in the mother — like cytomegalovirus, German measles, Zika virus, herpes, syphilis, urinary tract infections (UTIs), and toxoplasmosis — which can increase the risk of cerebral palsy
  • Pregnancies that are complicated by underlying medical conditions
  • Premature birth (before 37 weeks’ gestation), especially in babies with low birth weight

If one of these risk factors adversely affected the health and delivery of your child, contact Sokolove Law today. You may be eligible to pursue compensation to help care for your child.

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Types of Brain Damage That Cause Cerebral Palsy

The following types of infant brain damage may cause cerebral palsy, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorder and Stroke (NINDS):

  • Asphyxia occurs when the baby’s developing brain doesn’t get the oxygen it needs to function properly. While it’s common for a baby to lose oxygen supply for a short period during delivery, severe complications and brain damage can occur if the baby is denied oxygen for longer periods.
  • Hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy (HIE) can be caused by lack of oxygen to the brain, severe head trauma, or umbilical cord complications during delivery. HIE can destroy healthy tissue in the motor cortex and other parts of the brain.
  • Intracranial hemorrhages or bleeding in the brain can occur after a fetal stroke, potentially due to blood clots in the placenta that block the flow of blood to the brain.
  • Kernicterus is a type of brain damage caused by jaundice. Though jaundice is common in babies, when it goes untreated, bilirubin (a compound in bile) can build up in the blood, causing kernicterus.
  • Periventricular leukomalacia (PVL) is damage to the white matter of the brain. Periventricular white matter in the developing fetal brain is particularly prone to injury between 26 and 34 weeks of gestation, according to NINDS. The brain’s white matter sends messages from the brain to other parts of the body, an important element for movement.

In some cases, brain damage at birth is immediately apparent; in others, it may take longer to notice an issue.

If you think your child may be showing signs of brain damage or cerebral palsy, contact registered nurses with Sokolove Law today. They can listen to your story, help you understand what may be going on, and help determine if you may be eligible to take legal action.

Different Types of Cerebral Palsy and Their Causes

The different types of cerebral palsy and their causes depend on the extent, location, and type of the child’s brain abnormalities. The types of cerebral palsy include:

  • Spastic cerebral palsy
  • Athetoid or dyskinetic cerebral palsy
  • Ataxic cerebral palsy
  • Mixed cerebral palsy

Spastic Cerebral Palsy Causes

According to Nemours Children’s Health, spastic cerebral palsy is caused by a brain injury or damage that affects the:

  • Pyramidal tracts in the brain, which send messages to the brain to coordinate movement
  • Motor cortex area of the brain, which controls movement

Because of this, children with spastic CP may have stiff muscles that affect their ability to move:

  • The upper or lower part of the body
  • Both the upper and lower part of the body
  • One or both sides of their body

Athetoid Cerebral Palsy Causes

Athetoid or dyskinetic cerebral palsy causes can include brain damage caused by:

  • Basal ganglia and thalamic injuries
  • Brain injury during late pregnancy or early in the birth process
  • Cerebral infection
  • Fetal stroke
  • Intracranial hemorrhage
  • Untreated jaundice and kernicterus (the buildup of bilirubin in the baby’s blood)

Ataxic Cerebral Palsy Causes

Ataxic cerebral palsy is usually the result of an injury or damage to the cerebellum, the part of the brain responsible for controlling balance and coordinating movement, according to Nemours Children’s Health.

Ataxic CP may cause problems with balance and depth perception, leading to poor coordination and difficulty with precision, which can affect a child’s ability to write, button shirts, or control their movement.

Mixed Cerebral Palsy Causes

Mixed cerebral palsy is when a patient’s symptoms don’t follow any single form of the condition. As a result, mixed CP can be caused by a number of different birth injuries and brain damages.

In mixed CP cases, some muscles may be too tight and others too relaxed, which can create a mixture of stiff and floppy body parts.

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If you believe your child developed cerebral palsy as a result of a medical mistake, an experienced cerebral palsy lawyer can help you understand your legal options.

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Determining the Cause of Cerebral Palsy in Babies

Determining the cause of cerebral palsy in babies can be difficult. Babies rarely leave the newborn intensive care unit (NICU) with a diagnosis, and many development delays aren’t diagnosed until after the age of 1. For these reasons, children with cerebral palsy aren’t reliably diagnosed in many cases until around the age of 3 or 4.

To diagnose cerebral palsy, health care providers will order tests to check motor skills. During routine visits, your child’s doctor should monitor their development, muscle tone, growth, motor control, vision, and coordination.

Additional techniques for determining the cause of cerebral palsy in babies include:

  • Computed tomography (CT)
  • Cranial ultrasound
  • Electroencephalogram (EEG)
  • Lab tests
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)

Some disorders may cause specific types of cerebral palsy, while others can be mistaken for cerebral palsy, which makes diagnosing CP challenging. You may need to consult cerebral palsy specialists for help determining the nature and extent of your child’s condition.

Even if your child hasn’t been diagnosed yet, Sokolove Law may be able to help you pursue compensation that can help pay for your child’s medical expenses and more. Learn more today.

Get Help Pursuing Compensation for Your Child’s Condition

If you believe a medical mistake contributed to your child developing cerebral palsy, Sokolove Law may be able to help you pursue compensation, seek justice, and potentially prevent other families from going through the same thing.

Over the last 45+ years, our birth injury lawyers have recovered over $917 Million on behalf of families across the country who have been affected by birth injuries like cerebral palsy.

Get a free case review today or call (800) 995-1212 to see if we may be able to help your family pursue compensation. It costs nothing up front to hire us, and we accept a fee only if your case is successful.

Cerebral Palsy Causes FAQs

What is cerebral palsy caused by? 

In most cases, cerebral palsy is caused by damage to the developing brain before, during, or shortly following the birth of the child, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Causes of CP can include:

  • Birth complications and fetal distress
  • Infant brain trauma or injury
  • Lack of oxygen or blood flow to the brain
  • Medical errors during the pregnancy or delivery
  • Misuse of delivery room equipment like forceps and vacuum extractors

Even if you don’t know what caused your child to develop cerebral palsy, Sokolove Law may still be able to help. Contact us today to learn more.

Is cerebral palsy caused by doctors? 

In some cases, cerebral palsy may be caused by doctors, particularly when they make preventable medical mistakes during pregnancy or childbirth. These errors may be considered medical negligence or malpractice.

Common mistakes that can result in cerebral palsy include: 

  • Failure to detect the umbilical cord wrapped around the child’s neck, cutting off oxygen
  • Failure to monitor vital signs or respond to signs of fetal distress in a timely manner
  • Failure to properly diagnose and treat seizures
  • Leaving the child in the birth canal too long, causing a lack of oxygen to the brain
  • Misuse of delivery room equipment like forceps and vacuum extractors that can cause injury
  • Not having the necessary delivery room equipment set up and ready for delivery
  • Waiting too long to perform a C-section to remove a baby in distress

When doctors and other health care providers fail to meet the standard of care, resulting in a birth injury such as cerebral palsy, the child’s family may be able to hold them accountable.

Contact Sokolove Law today to learn more about your legal options — for free.

What is the main cause of cerebral palsy? 

The most common cause of cerebral palsy is brain damage that occurred during pregnancy or during birth, representing 85-95% of cases, according to the CDC.

What kinds of birth injuries cause cerebral palsy?

Cerebral palsy can be caused by a variety of birth injuries, including:

  • Damage or trauma to the infant’s head or brain
  • Fetal distress or lack of oxygen to the brain, like when the umbilical cord strangles the baby
  • Intracranial hemorrhages
  • Untreated infections or jaundice

In some cases, these birth injuries may be caused by errors the doctors or other medical professionals made. If you believe a medical mistake contributed to your child’s condition, you may have options. Contact Sokolove Law today to learn more.

Can brain injury cause cerebral palsy? 

The majority of cerebral palsy cases are caused by brain injury or damage before or during birth, according to the CDC.

What part of the brain causes cerebral palsy?

Cerebral palsy usually involves damage to the part of the brain called white matter, which affects the cerebral cortex or motor area of the brain’s outer layer, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorder and Stroke (NINDS). This part of the brain is responsible for muscle movement.

What causes cerebral palsy in pregnancy?

Cerebral palsy during pregnancy can be caused by issues that affect the development of the baby’s brain, particularly due to brain damage or lack of oxygen to the baby’s brain.

In some cases, it may be caused by an untreated infection in the mother.

What causes cerebral palsy during labor? 

The causes of cerebral palsy during labor include difficult deliveries and birth complications that may result in brain damage. There are a number of circumstances during the birthing process that can disrupt oxygen supply to the baby’s brain and cause cerebral palsy.

For instance, i​n cases of fetal distress, expecting mothers are often placed on fetal monitors that allow health care professionals to monitor and record the baby’s heartbeat. If the baby suffers from a lack of oxygen during labor and delivery, there should be signs of distress in the baby’s heart rate.

Doctors, midwives, and nurses are trained to know the measures that relieve fetal distress. However, if there’s a significant delay in responding to distress, a prolonged lack of oxygen can damage the baby’s brain, potentially causing cerebral palsy.

If you think a medical error during the delivery of your child caused or contributed to their cerebral palsy, you may be entitled to compensation. Contact us today to learn more.

Is cerebral palsy caused by lack of oxygen at birth? 

A lack of oxygen in the brain, called asphyxia, is common for a short time in babies due to the stress of labor and delivery.

If oxygen is cut off for longer periods of time, though, a baby can suffer a type of brain damage known as hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy (HIE), which interferes with the motor cortex and other parts of the brain.

HIE can lead to infant brain damage and cerebral palsy.

Sokolove Law Team

Contributing Authors

The Sokolove Law Content Team is made up of writers, editors, and journalists. We work with case managers and attorneys to keep site information up to date and accurate. Our site has a wealth of resources available for victims of wrongdoing and their families.

Last modified: May 11, 2024

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). "Causes and Risk Factors of Cerebral Palsy." Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/cp/causes.html. Accessed on April 23, 2023.
  2. Li X, Arya K. “Athetoid Cerebral Palsy.” StatPearls Publishing. January 2021. [Updated 2021 Jul 18]. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK563160/. Accessed on April 23, 2023.
  3. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). "What causes cerebral palsy?" Retrieved from: https://www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/cerebral-palsy/conditioninfo/causes. Accessed on April 23, 2023.
  4. National Institute of Neurological Disorder and Stroke (NINDS). "Cerebral Palsy: Hope Through Research." Retrieved from: https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Hope-Through-Research/Cerebral-Palsy-Hope-Through-Research. Accessed on April 23, 2023.
  5. Nemours Children's Health. "Ataxic Cerebral Palsy." Retrieved from: https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/ataxic-cp.html. Accessed on April 23, 2023.
  6. Nemours Children’s Health. "Spastic Cerebral Palsy." Retrieved from: https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/spastic-cp.html. Accessed on April 23, 2023.