One of the main signs of cerebral palsy in an infant is when brain damage occurs during pregnancy or shortly after.
But how can you know for sure?
When a baby is welcomed into this world it can be an uncertain time, especially for those who have experienced a challenging pregnancy or delivery.
If brain damage takes place before or right after birth, an infant may develop a motor disability called Cerebral Palsy (CP).
With that said, let’s explore the following:
- What is Cerebral Palsy?
- How does it happen in infants?
- What early signs do you need to look for?
- And MORE…
It’s important to keep in mind each child develops at their own pace. Not all signs are visible at birth and may become more noticeable as your child grows and develops.
What is Cerebral Palsy?
Cerebral Palsy (CP) is brain damage that affects a child’s motor abilities (such as sitting, crawling, rolling).
CP is one of the most common motor disabilities in children.
It is a neurological (brain) disorder that occurs during pregnancy or right after birth and causes the loss of normal motor functions or motor delays.
Having CP is a lifelong condition that affects the communication between the brain and muscles which causes abnormal movements and weakness.
For instance, CP can hinder a child’s ability to move in a coordinated way when walking, talking, and eating.
The good news is the condition will not worsen over time but may drastically improve through various forms of pediatric therapies, surgery, or other non-invasive interventions like brain stimulation or botulinum toxin-A injections.
How Cerebral Palsy May Occur in Infants
Even though there is always a chance that something may go wrong during the birth process, most babies are delivered with few or no physical injuries.
On average, 29 out of every 1,000 babies in the United States suffer some kind of birth trauma (1).
Most commonly, infant brain damage (also known as acquired brain injuries or ABI) happens either by trauma to the baby’s brain or lack of oxygen flow to the brain near the time of birth.
Acquired brain injuries may happen in a few ways:
Random fetal movements may occur increasing the risk of the umbilical cord being wrapped around a baby’s neck cutting off or limiting oxygen flow to the brain.
Having an early birth may put a baby at risk for developing brain bleeds or in severe cases, fluid on the brain.
During delivery, the poor use of instruments used or improper handling of a newborn by the medical staff may cause brain damage to an infant.
Nonetheless, at any age, the acquired brain injury may lead to a mild to severe disability that is temporary or permanent.
When Is Cerebral Palsy Diagnosed?
Cerebral Palsy is a complex disability due to the wide range of cases ranging from severe to mild.
Because of this, diagnosis is a tricky process early on.
Doctors who commonly diagnose a child with cerebral palsy depends on the symptoms present:
- On average, most children with cerebral palsy are diagnosed within the first 18 months to 2 years of age because over time, symptoms become more apparent.
- During extreme cases, CP may be diagnosed in as little as a few months after birth.
- In mild cases, a child may not become diagnosed until their brain is fully developed at three to five years of age.
This is one of the most discouraging parts early on for parents because if a child shows signs and symptoms of cerebral palsy, a diagnosis may take time.
To summarize, diagnosis can take place anywhere from a few months after birth up until five years of age.
Now you may be wondering what signs do you need to look for if an infant?
Let’s dive into that next.
10 Early Signs Of Cerebral Palsy in Infants
You may notice certain developmental milestones are not being met.
This is often one of the first signs that lead to a diagnosis.
Here are ten early signs of cerebral palsy to be on the lookout for in infants.
1. Can not hold up their head.
Unable to hold up their head while being picked up, lying down on their back, or stomach.
Usually, around 2 to 4 months old, most babies should be able to lift their heads unsupported.
2. Unable to roll over.
Unable to roll over independently front to back.
Usually, around 4 months old, babies are able to roll over unassisted.
3. Hand control issues.
Has difficulty with hand control such as bringing the hands together or to the mouth (2).
You may also notice a baby reach out with one hand while their other hand remains in a closed fist.
Usually, around 4 months old, babies are able to clasp their hands together or bring their hands up to their mouth.
4. Feel floppy, heavy, or limp.
When held, they feel ‘floppy, heavy, or limp’ due to poor muscle tone in the limbs like the arms and legs.
5. Tense legs.
When held, the legs become tense or cross-like scissors.
The leg movement may look or feel stiff or rigid.
6. Feeding issues.
For instance, you may notice things like:
- Difficulty closing their lips
- Chewing with an open mouth
- Poor tongue control or tongue thrusts
- Exaggerated bite reflex
Cerebral Palsy in babies commonly shows signs of swallowing problems (also known as Dysphagia) or feeding difficulties.
7. Muscle spasms or tremors.
Due to tight and stiff muscles, you may see movements that are uncontrolled, spasms, or jerky movements.
You may also notice tremors such as shaky hands.
8. Sitting issues.
Unable to sit up without assistance.
Usually, by 9 months old, babies are able to sit up independently.
9. Standing issues.
Unable to stand up, rock back and forth, or bounce on their legs.
Usually, by 9 months old, babies are able to stand up independently, bounce, or rock back and forth.
10. Walking issues.
Unable to walk without assistance or support.
Usually, by 1 year to 18 months, babies are able to walk unassisted.
Again, keep in mind each child develops at their own pace. Not all signs are visible at birth and may become more noticeable as your child grows and develops.
When Can a Child be Tested for Cerebral Palsy?
The great news, children can be tested early on to see if they show signs of having a developmental disability.
Between birth up to 3 months of age, a General Movements Assessment is done.
This is an inexpensive medical test that is non-invasive.
The purpose of the assessment is to show if the child has neurological issues which could lead to Cerebral Palsy.
A therapist, doctor, or medical personnel will complete the movement assessment by lying the child on their back while they are awake and videotaping them for three to five minutes.
The medical individual is trained to score the video based on the child’s movements.
If You’re Concerned…
If you believe your infant is not meeting developmental milestones as we just mentioned, it’s best to follow up with your pediatrician or nurse to share your concerns.
You can ask your pediatrician for a referral to see a specialist who will be able to perform an in-depth assessment of your child to make a diagnosis.
You may also contact your state’s Public Early Childhood system to request a free evaluation to determine if your child qualifies for intervention services, sometimes referred to as a ‘Child Find’ evaluation (3). If you do not want to wait on a doctor’s referral or diagnosis, this is a great way to move forward quickly.
How To Set Up A Free Evaluation
You may be wondering, “who do I call to set up a free evaluation for my child in my state”?
This depends on your child’s age.
To move forward in the right direction, the following two centers are great resources to contact:
The ECTA helps develop early intervention and preschool special education service systems.
It is a national technical assistance center that focuses on building state and local systems to improve outcomes for children with disabilities and their families.
Call the Parent Center in your state.
Each state has one parent center funded to provide information to parents who have children with developmental disabilities or delays.
Ask your Parent Center about getting connected with an early intervention program near you.
Cerebral Palsy: A Complete Guide for Caregiving
Are you or someone you know, taking care of a child with Cerebral Palsy?
If you answered yes, this is a helpful guide to reference.
The book was established by world-renowned experts and the information is very informative because it walks you through the most current advances in the CP world when it comes to diagnosis, treatment, terminology, and advice on how to care for a child with cerebral palsy.
Treatment of Cerebral Palsy and Motor Delay
If you need a simple resource that provides a thorough overview of cerebral palsy and its treatment, this is a helpful reference to have on hand.
Spastic Diplegia Bilateral Cerebral Palsy
An evidence-based guide for families who have a child with Spastic Diplegia Cerebral Palsy.
Symptoms of Cerebral Palsy Video
If you need a visual reference the video Symptoms of Cerebral Palsy follows medical professionals who share what to look for and the next steps to take if you feel your child is showing symptoms of CP.
Video By: Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare
We want to wrap up by extending our gratitude to thank you for stopping by today!
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About the Author
Lindsey is the co-founder of The LENN Foundation and content creator of the Intensive Therapy for Kids blog.
When she isn’t busy playing Godzilla with her son or chasing around her mischievous Rottweiler pup, she loves creating experiences and memories with her loved ones (traveling, watching a good flick, trying new n’ yummy restaurants). Speaking of restaurants, one of her favs is Taco Bell!
Most of all, she is grateful for her supportive circle of family, friends, and to live out her passion for helping kids with Cerebral Palsy (like her sweet nephew Lenny).
If you’re curious about The LENN Foundation, you may see the kids’ helped and feel-good content here. ♥
- Kimberly Langdon, M.D. Meagan Cline (2021). Birth Injury Guide: A Comprehensive Resource from Experts Who Care. Birth Trauma.
- Pierrette Mimi Poinsett, M.D. (2020). Cerebral Palsy Guidance. Cerebral Palsy and Developmental Delays.
- Andrew M.I. Lee, JD. Understood. What is Child Find?
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