What is cerebral palsy?

Becoming a parent is undoubtedly a life-changing experience. While the best-case scenario is that the birth goes smoothly and the baby arrives healthily, unfortunately this isn’t always the case.

If you suffer complications during pregnancy or labour, or if there are issues shortly after birth, it could lead to your baby acquiring a condition called cerebral palsy (CP). Cerebral palsy is a type of injury to the brain that can lead to a wide range of symptoms ranging from very mild to very severe in nature.

As the parent of a child with CP, it can be difficult to hear that your baby might be suffering in any way. If you’d like to be more informed about the basics of the condition, we’ve provided an outline below of the symptoms, causes and treatment options for cerebral palsy.

What is cerebral palsy?

Cerebral palsy is the name given to a spectrum of conditions that affect movement, muscle control and co-ordination.

It’s a lifelong condition with no cure, but it’s not a progressive one.

This means the actual injury to the brain won’t worsen over time. That said, the condition can make everyday tasks more difficult, with the extra effort putting additional strain on a child’s body. You’ll need to find the right treatments and therapies to help your child adapt to and cope with these challenges (which can also manifest in different ways as they get older).

What can cause cerebral palsy?

Cerebral palsy is typically caused by some sort of obstruction, causing asphyxiation or hypoxia (a lack of oxygen to the brain). This can happen at any time during pregnancy or labour, or just after the baby is born. If the baby is in distress, it’s up to the medical professionals involved in the labour process to pick up on this and act accordingly.

Medical professionals must also monitor expectant mothers during pregnancy. Any maternal infections that have not been detected – or not adequately treated or monitored – could cause injury to the baby’s brain, leading to CP.

Other causes of CP include bleeding on the baby’s brain, stroke, meningitis and genetic conditions (although the latter is very rare).

Crucially, in many cases, the exact cause of cerebral palsy in your baby might not be easy to determine.

What are some of the symptoms of cerebral palsy?

The symptoms of cerebral palsy typically aren’t obvious until a child is two or three years old and begins to miss key developmental milestones. If you do have any doubts or worries – at any point in your child’s life – seek guidance from your GP.

Typically, the main symptoms of CP include:

  • Delays in reaching development milestones
  • Random and uncontrolled body movements
  • Fidgety, jerky or clumsy movements
  • Issues with balance and co-ordination
  • Muscle weakness or stiffness
  • Weak arms or legs
  • Walking on tip-toes
  • Curvature of the spine
  • Seizures or fits
  • Difficulty swallowing or eating
  • Difficulty sleeping

Keep in mind this list is not exhaustive — symptoms will vary in severity from child to child and may affect different parts of their bodies.

Treatments for cerebral palsy

Children with cerebral palsy can have complex needs, requiring specialist care, therapy and treatment, as well as specialist equipment or adaptations to their home. Once you’ve identified the issues with your child, it’s important to put in place a care and treatment plan as soon as possible to give your child the best support.

Some of the key treatments for children with cerebral palsy include:

  • Physiotherapy techniques, such as exercise and stretching, to address problems with movement.
  • Speech therapy, to improve issues with communication, swallowing and drooling.
  • Occupational therapy to address any issues with everyday tasks.
  • Medications for muscle stiffness and other difficulties.
  • Surgery, to restore movement, repair hip joints, correct curvature of the spine or treat problems with bladder control.

We recommend working with a team of healthcare professionals to come up with a treatment plan that meets your child’s needs – this should include making sure any special educational needs are met.

A look to the future

As the parent of a child with CP, your journey ahead can feel daunting. But, while you’re faced with understanding the ins and outs of a condition that will affect your child for the rest of their life, there is a wide range of specialist support available.

We’ve gathered information about where to find external support, how to involve your family and friends in handling the challenges ahead and the various avenues you can take to help your child lead a wonderful, fulfilled life. With the right treatments, therapies and support in place – coupled with careful adjustments made as the child develops – many children with cerebral palsy lead full, independent lives for decades to come.

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