What is cerebral palsy?
What is cerebral palsy?
A boy in a wheelchair with his family in a park

Cerebral palsy is an “umbrella” term that is used to describe a range of movement disorders which can have an impact on many aspects of normal childhood development. It is sometimes referred to as “the cerebral palsies” or CP. 

It happens as a result of interference or damage to the developing baby’s central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) between conception and 3 years of age. The way in which it affects body tone (muscle strength) and movement skills will depend on where the damage in the brain has occurred. The initial damage to the brain will not get worse, but its effect on a developing child’s muscular and skeletal systems, and hence motor (movement) and functional abilities, may lead to problems with movement and posture as the child grows. It can also interfere with the way the child is able to physically interact with his/her environment, communicate, carry out self-care skills and learn from the normal activities of childhood. 

How many children does this affect?

There are an estimated 30,000 children and young people in the UK with cerebral palsies. Roughly, one in every 400 babies born will be diagnosed with cerebral palsy. The conditions are the most common physical disabilities in childhood and can affect those from all social backgrounds and social groups.

How does cerebral palsy affect children?

How cerebral palsy affects each person will be unique. However, the damage to the central nervous system (our brain and nervous system) can cause the following effects:

In turn, these issues may affect: 

Graphic reading 'If in doubt, check it out'

Action Cerebral Palsy has recently launched a public awareness campaign in the UK to highlight these key warning signs and encourage parents who have concerns about their child’s motor development to speak with their GP, Paediatrician or Health Visitor. For more information about the signs of potential cerebral palsy, click here.

There may be other reasons why your baby or toddler is showing these signs, but it is still important to check it out. 

What are the warning signs of cerebral palsy?

It is important to remember that babies develop in different ways and at different rates, but you should trust your instincts and if you have any concerns about your baby’s movements or development, don’t panic but check it out and speak to your doctor or health visitor or paediatrician. Key signs that you should seek professional advice are:

Your baby feels floppy, stiff or a combination of these

Your baby has difficulty kicking legs or moving arms when lying down, or hands finding feet

Your baby is not bringing her/his hands together

Your baby is using one side of their body a lot less than the other

Your baby has jerky movements or difficulty controlling their own movement

Your baby is distressed by or not reacting to touch, sounds, movements or smells

Your baby has difficulty making eye contact or following moving objects with their head and eyes

Your baby has difficulty sucking, feeding or swallowing

Your baby is late in reaching milestones in sitting (8 months) and walking (18 months)

It is important to know that however worried you might be, you are not alone and there is help available at every stage. Since 2017, there are NICE Guidelines in place covering the diagnosis, assessment, and management of cerebral palsy in children and young people from birth up to their 25th birthday. It is best to start with the health professionals who know you and your baby – your doctor, your health visitor or your paediatrician. If your baby or child does receive a diagnosis, you will be supported by a local paediatric services team which includes paediatricians, health visitors, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, speech and language therapists and other professionals.

Please note though that you do not have to wait for a formal diagnosis to access support services. There are many charities who provide free early intervention services or charge only a small fee for their service.

You can contact The National Portage Association which is an organisation which provides home visits by trained practitioners to support early development for pre-school children with additional needs and their families. 

Also, please look at the “Local Offer” on your local council’s website as that will have details of local organisations which offer help and support for children with additional needs and their families. 

Your local children’s centre or health visitor may be able to give you details of suitable early years organisation too.

There are also many online forums and websites such as this one which can give you information and support.

There is often not just single cause of cerebral palsy and it can take some time to accurately establish the exact cause. Also, in almost half of babies who go on to have a diagnosis of cerebral palsy, there will be no obvious risk factors present. However, the following are risk factors which may result in cerebral palsy:

  • Interruption of the blood flow or oxygen to the baby’s brain before, during or after birth
  • Low birth weight
  • Prematurity
  • Maternal disease, infection or pre-eclampsia during pregnancy
  • Haemorrhages (blood loss during pregnancy or in baby after birth)
  • Toxins passed to the baby during pregnancy, for example tobacco, alcohol, prohibited drugs
  • Heart/respiratory distress 
  • Blood group incompatibility
  • Multiple births
  • Maternal history of miscarriage or still birth
  • Genetic predisposition
  • Post-natal infection, stoke, accidental or non-accidental brain injury in baby

It is very important not to jump to conclusions or blame yourself if your baby has signs of cerebral palsy. The exact cause will be different for every child and sometimes there will be no definite answer. Once a detailed assessment has been carried out, your medical team may be able to explain possible causes for your baby’s difficulties. However the most important thing is to ensure that you and your baby gets the help you need as quickly as possible to reduce the impact of their difficulties on their development and wellbeing.

There are 4 main types of cerebral palsy:

  • Spasticity: high tone (stiffness) with tense muscles. This is the most common type of cerebral palsy. 
  • Dyskinetic: sometimes referred to as dystonia, athetosis or chorea. This is characterised by fluctuating tone creating constantly changing involuntary movements which are difficult to control. 
  • Ataxic: poor sense of balance causing falls and stumbles 
  • Mixed: Sometimes there may be a mixture of these presentations. 

For further information about cerebral palsy, see Cerebral palsy – NHS

The Importance of Early Intervention

Between birth and 3 years of age, your baby’s brain is developing and growing very rapidly – more than at any other stage in life. As your baby moves, they are experiencing and learning about the world around them and so it is very important that if they are having problems with movements (sometimes called motor skills), they get expert help as soon as possible to minimize the impact on their learning and overall development. Every child is unique and develops at different rates, but seeking early help will also enable you to get the support you need as a new parent and will help the wellbeing of the whole family. Click here to see a short video explanation.

For more information on Action Cerebral Palsy
and how we can help you:

Our Work

Working to improve awareness of the issues facing children and young people with cerebral palsy.

For Parents

Information about the care, services and support for parents.

For Professionals

Resources and support materials for healthcare and educational professionals.

For Others

Latest research and policy information about cerebral palsy.

For more information on Action Cerebral Palsy and how we can help you:

Our Work

Working to improve awareness of the issues facing children and young people with cerebral palsy

For Parents

Information about the care, services and support for parents

For Professionals

Resources and support materials for healthcare and educational professionals

For Others

Latest research and policy information about cerebral palsy

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