The exact causes of most cases of CP are unknown, but many are the result of problems during pregnancy in which the brain is either damaged or doesn’t develop normally. This can be due to infections, maternal health problems, a genetic disorder, or something else that interferes with normal brain development. Problems during labor and delivery can cause CP in some cases. but this is the exception.
Premature babies — particularly those who weigh less than 3.3 pounds (1,510 grams) — have a higher risk of CP than babies that are carried full-term, as are other low birth weight babies and multiple births, such as twins and triplets.
Brain damage in infancy or early childhood can also lead to CP. A baby or toddler might suffer this damage because of lead poisoning, bacterial meningitis, malnutrition, being shaken as an infant (shaken baby syndrome), or being in a car accident while not properly restrained.
Diagnosing Cerebral Palsy
CP may be diagnosed very early in an infant known to be at risk for developing the condition because of premature birth or other health problems. Doctors, such as pediatricians and developmental and neurological specialists, usually follow these kids closely from birth so that they can identify and address any developmental delays or problems with muscle function that might indicate CP.
In a baby carried to term with no other obvious risk factors for CP, it may be difficult to diagnose the disorder in the first year of life. Often doctors aren’t able to diagnose CP until they see a delay in normal developmental milestones (such as reaching for toys by 4 months or sitting up by 7 months), which can be a sign of CP.
Abnormal muscle tone, poorly coordinated movements, and the persistence of infant reflexes beyond the age at which they are expected to disappear also can be signs. If these developmental milestones are only mildly delayed, the diagnosis of CP may not be made until the child is a toddler.