Cerebral Palsy | Causes & Risk Factors

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What causes CP?

The brain damage that causes CP can occur before the child is born, during birth or in the first few years of life. In most cases, CP is present at birth. Normally, the brain sends out messages telling the body exactly how to move and exactly when to move. Children who have CP have damage to the part of the brain that sends out these messages. This affects the way a child who has CP talks, walks and moves.

Certain infections, such as rubella or chickenpox, in the pregnant mother can increase the risk of brain damage in the developing baby and cause CP. Sometimes, a baby’s brain does not develop properly while in the womb, which can also lead to CP. Doctors don’t know for sure why this happens, but in some cases it can be associated with the mother’s exposure to certain toxic substances.

A difficult labor or delivery can cause CP. This can happen if there is a lack of oxygen in the baby’s brain during birth. Severe jaundice that is left untreated in newborns can also result in CP.

Children who have meningitis or viral encephalitis can also lead to CP. Meningitis causes inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord. Viral encephalitis causes inflammation of the brain.

CP has also been associated with brain injuries during the first few months or years of life.

Risk factors for CP

  • Infection, such as rubella, in a pregnant mother
  • Problems with blood circulation in the brain before birth
  • Abnormal brain development
  • Premature birth or low birth weight
  • Babies in a feet-first (breech) position at the beginning of labor
  • Difficult labor and delivery or delivery of multiple babies
  • Exposure to toxic substances in a pregnant mother
  • Severe jaundice in newborns
  • Infections in the baby after birth, such as bacterial meningitis
  • Head injuries after birth

Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff

Reviewed/Updated: 02/14
Created: 07/06

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