Cerebral palsy (CP) is a complex condition.
Very rarely is it obvious that a child is born with CP. More typically, it’s not until a baby misses developmental milestones – the first at 2 months – that parents and doctors might notice something is amiss. And since the condition varies in type and severity, CP manifests in a wide range of symptoms from impaired movement, cognition, sight, and hearing. Some of these appear quicker than others, and even then they may flag a different condition.
Often the causes of CP are complicated, or in the worst cases, withheld by doctors from parents.
Yet the earlier parents notice the signs and detect the cause, the better their chances of preventing complete loss of function in their child. Here, we’ll look at how to detect cerebral palsy, how the symptoms develop, and what to do next.
The Signs: How to Tell if Your Child Has Cerebral Palsy
These depend on age. In a newborn, look for:
- Stiff or floppy muscle tone
- Muscle spasms
- Poor control of reflexes
- Unusual movement, balance, or posture overall
- Preference in using one side of the body
- Feeding or swallowing difficulties
At 6 months, these signs could indicate delayed motor development. But they may not be obvious until later milestones. For example:
- Inability to walk by 12-18 months
- Inability to speak simple sentences by 24 months
You can refer to the CDC’s website for a full list of developmental milestones, as well as free resources like checklists, a tracker app, and a quiz. The CDC encourages parents to begin tests at home. But the surest way to track your child’s progress is through your early childhood nurse, primary care doctor, or pediatrician, who can perform the medical tests needed to make an official diagnosis.
How Do Doctors Test for Cerebral Palsy?
From your baby’s first scheduled visit, your doctor will check for those milestones and measure subtle changes over time. If they suspect CP, they’ll likely refer you to a neurologist or specialist trained in child development, who may perform:
- Blood tests to rule out other conditions that mimic CP.
- A CT scan (X-ray of the brain) in rarer cases of emergency.
- An MRI for hard-to-detect damage to the brain (preferred for producing higher-quality images and less radiation than CT scans).
- An ultrasound (only in very young babies and not as helpful for hard-to-detect damage).
- An EEG (electroencephalogram), which measures brain waves to help detect epilepsy.
When will you get an official diagnosis? In most cases, by the time your child is 2 years old. But the time frame varies.
Even if test results show injuries, it may be too early to assess the impact. Babies with severe symptoms might be diagnosed soon after birth, while milder symptoms might not be linked to CP until years later. It’s frustrating for parents, but the diagnostic process isn’t an easy one – especially after questionable causes.
How Does Cerebral Palsy Develop?
Cerebral palsy is 1 of several common birth injuries that occur before, during, or after birth, but usually during labor or delivery. While others include broken bones, nerve injury, or spinal injury, cerebral palsy is caused specifically by injury to the brain. The location and extent of this injury determine which symptoms develop.
But how do these brain injuries occur in the first place? Most cases are tied to lack of oxygen to the brain. In others, CP is associated with prematurity, head trauma, bleeding or infections in the brain, or infections in the mother during pregnancy. All such problems are preventable. But when they’re ignored, left too long, or mistaken for other issues, CP can ultimately be tied to the negligent medical care of doctors and nurses.
While CP doesn’t get worse over time, it is lifelong. There is no cure. That’s what makes medical and legal intervention so important. Treatment can help your child live as independently as possible, while legal counsel can help you identify anyone responsible, understand your rights, and secure the compensation you need to pay for treatment.
The most important thing, if you suspect your baby has CP, is to intervene as early as possible.