By Eddie Jones, partner and head of medical negligence, JMW Solicitors
Cerebral palsy is potentially one of the most serious and life-changing conditions affecting children. It occurs as a result of brain damage that happens around the time of birth or in the newborn period, and can result in lifelong physical and learning difficulties.
If you are having, or have recently had, a baby, it is important to be able to recognise signs of cerebral palsy at a young age, especially if you experienced any problems during the birth. By knowing the symptoms of cerebral palsy, you will be in a better position to make sure your child gets the treatment and support they need.
What is cerebral palsy, and what are its causes?
Cerebral palsy (CP) is an umbrella term that describes a group of neurological conditions that affect movement and coordination. It is estimated that there are 30,000 children living with cerebral palsy in the UK, and around 2-2.5 out of every 1,000 babies develop the disorder.
The cause is usually related to abnormal development or damage to parts of the brain before, during, or soon after birth. Potential contributing factors include:
- Bleeding in the baby’s brain, or blood and oxygen supplies to the brain being cut off during birth
- Infections affecting the mother during pregnancy
- Infections in the baby such as meningitis
- A serious head injury sustained during infancy
- Hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar) in the newborn period
Medical errors during the birthing process or in the newborn period can also contribute directly to a child’s risk of cerebral palsy in various ways, including:
- Delays in delivery
- Misuse of drugs designed to speed up labour
- Failures or delays in diagnosing infections
- Errors leading to dangerously low blood sugars (hypoglycaemia)
- Failure to carry out a C-section in a timely manner
- A lack of treatment for newborn jaundice
If you are aware that any of these circumstances have occurred during the birth of your child or in the newborn period , it is particularly important that you understand the signs of cerebral palsy, so that you can get your child diagnosed with the condition as soon as possible.
The most common signs of cerebral palsy
The signs and symptoms of cerebral palsy can vary greatly depending on the type, severity, and location of the damage in the brain. Common signs may include:
- Delays in reaching key developmental milestones such as rolling over, sitting up unsupported, crawling and walking
- Muscle tightness or stiffness
- Uncoordinated movements
- Unusual limb posturing
- Poor balance
- Changes in muscle tone
- Learning difficulties
- Sensory impairments
The following conditions may also be connected to cerebral palsy:
- Difficulties with feeding and swallowing
- Speech difficulties
- Seizures or fits
- Reduced vision and squinting
- Hearing loss
However, it is worth noting that none of these symptoms will be visible immediately in newborns, as the condition will likely manifest over the first few years of their lives. As such, the best way to look out for cerebral palsy in children is to watch out for the following warning signs at each stage of their infancy:
Infants younger than six months:
- Your baby is stiff or floppy when held
- 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 the person holding them
- 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 lift their hands to their mouth
- Your baby usually only reaches out with one hand, 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
The different types of cerebral palsy
It is also important to remember that cerebral palsy is not a single condition, but instead encompasses a number of distinct types, each of which has slightly different definitions and symptoms.
Below are the four main variations of cerebral palsy and their characteristic symptoms:
- Spastic cerebral palsy – this condition is mostly associated with muscle stiffness and tightness, leading to abnormal movements and limitations in the child’s range of motion
- Dyskinetic cerebral palsy – also sometimes known as athetoid cerebral palsy, this condition causes the muscles to alternate between being stiff and floppy, resulting in spasms, uncontrolled movement and abnormal muscle tone
- Ataxic cerebral palsy – this condition causes balance and coordination issues, resulting in wobbly or awkward movements and occasional tremors, as well as longer-term difficulties with walking, holding objects and writing
- Mixed cerebral palsy – this combines the symptoms of more than one type of cerebral palsy, with the most common type of mixed cerebral palsy combining the symptoms of dyskinetic and spastic cerebral palsy
What to do if your child shows signs of cerebral palsy
Early diagnosis and intervention are key to helping your child reach their potential. Treatment for cerebral palsy will vary depending on the individual, but may include medications, physiotherapy, occupational therapy, speech and language therapy, surgery and assistive technology.
If you believe that your child’s cerebral palsy was caused by medical errors during delivery or in the newborn period, it may be possible to pursue a claim for financial compensation. This can help cover costs of treatment and equipment, as well as other additional support services they may need. It is recommended you speak to an experienced solicitor that specialises in cerebral palsy claims to help you understand whether you have a strong case to make a claim.
No matter the circumstances, cerebral palsy is likely to have a significant impact on both the child themselves and their family, but early diagnosis and intervention are key to helping them reach their potential. If you suspect your child may have cerebral palsy, seek professional advice as soon as possible – this will be the first step to getting them the treatments, therapies and support they need to experience the best possible care and quality of life.