It isn't easy raising and caring for a child with cerebral palsy, but that doesn't mean you are helpless. You can be your child's best advocate in the months and years to come, ensuring that he or she gets the care that's needed. The more you know, the better prepared you will be to help your child. This is particularly important in the case of cerebral palsy, which is a complex condition with a broad range of possible symptoms and complications. The good news is that there are now many options for children with cerebral palsy and their parents/caregivers in terms of medical and surgical treatments, practical help and social care support, as well as a wealth of information resources.
What Is Cerebral Palsy?
Cerebral palsy is an umbrella term for a group of neurological disorders that appear early in life. They permanently affect the individual's ability to coordinate movement. Abnormalities in the brain cause cerebral palsy, although often, no specific cause can be found. Cerebral palsy is usually not progressive; that is, it does not tend to get worse with age.
Recent studies have found that most children with cerebral palsy are born with it, although doctors may not diagnose the condition until a child is a few years old.
These are other possible causes of cerebral palsy:
- Genetic or metabolic abnormalities
- Fetal injury
- Maternal infection, such as rubella, during pregnancy
- Birth complications
- Head injury within the first few months of life
- Brain infections, such as bacterial meningitis or encephalitis
Although there has been considerable research into the condition, there is still much that is not known about cerebral palsy and its origins.
Signs of Cerebral Palsy
The signs of cerebral palsy usually develop before a child turns age 3. The parent of a child with cerebral palsy is usually the first to notice these signs, and to realize that the child is not developing normally. The signs of cerebral palsy vary widely and can range from mild to severe. Some people with the condition are intellectually impaired, but many have no mental deficits at all.
Early signs of cerebral palsy include:
- Developmental delay: An infant with cerebral palsy may not learn to sit or walk or reach other developmental milestones at the appropriate age.
- Abnormal muscle tone: The infant's body typically seems very stiff, though it may appear overly relaxed and floppy.
- Unusual posture or body position
Very fidgety babies with excessive colic and sleep disorders may also be at risk, although in many cases these may be normal phases. Parents often know when they become abnormally persistent and part of the bigger picture and take this concern further by consulting their doctor.
Other signs may include:
- Dragging one foot or favoring one arm -- features which show uneven muscle function
- Lots of drooling or trouble sucking, swallowing, or talking
If your child shows any of these signs, you should consult your child's doctor.
Risk Factors for Cerebral Palsy
Anyone can have a child with cerebral palsy, but certain conditions put your infant at higher risk:
- Exposure to infection or toxins during pregnancy
- Circulation problems in the mother during pregnancy
- Incompatible rhesus blood factors (the + or - associated with blood type)
- Low birth weight or prematurity
- Multiple births -- for example giving birth to twins or triplets
- Breech birth or other childbirth complications
- Severe, untreated newborn jaundice
Treatment for Children with Cerebral Palsy
There is no cure for cerebral palsy, but early intervention can measurably improve your child's ability to manage the condition. Treatment options for children with cerebral palsy include:
- Physical therapy to help improve strength, flexibility, and balance
- Occupational therapy to help with fine motor and self-care skills
- Speech therapy to help improve communication, and possibly feeding and swallowing
- Hearing, vision, and other assistance devices
- Orthotic devices to improve balance and mobility
- Medication to prevent pain or seizures, or to relax muscles
- Surgery to improve severe cases of deformity or spasticity
- Counseling for behavior or adjustment issues
Social services can be invaluable in offering support for the child, family, and caregivers, and to offer respite when needed.
Visiting nurse services can help put together packages of care as required, and they can help parents access and coordinate services when needed.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to treating a child with cerebral palsy. Each individual will have different symptoms, abilities, and needs. Be proactive in making sure your child gets the help and support he or she needs. Whether symptoms are mild or severe, your child deserves support to reach his or her maximum potential.
Support for Parents of Children with Cerebral Palsy
Educate yourself. The more you know about cerebral palsy, the more tools you will have to help your child. Read about cerebral palsy in other sections of this web site. Ask your child’s doctor about resources available from his or her office and on the internet. Many non-profit organizations offer information on cerebral palsy; keep up-to-date with current research.
Build a support system. Seek out local groups and parent network organizations for families of children with disabilities. Ask your doctor or specialist for referrals. Join an online chat group for parents of children with cerebral palsy.
Take care of yourself. You can’t help your child if you are burned out. Make plans to do things you enjoy, such as taking time out to have a night out with friends or family. Planning ahead so that the situation at home is safe for your child prior to going out makes this possible and more beneficial. It is so important to “recharge the batteries.”
Take care of your relationships. Find a babysitter whom you like and trust, so you and your partner can have private time together. And don't forget your other children; make sure to keep up with their activities and try to have special one-to-one time with them as often as possible.
Get help. If you or your partner is consistently burned out or depressed, or if you are not getting along, seek help. Having a disabled child can be extremely stressful; it can also put your relationship at risk. Your doctor can refer you to a qualified individual, family, or couple's therapist. It may also be that you are still at an early stage in understanding your child’s condition and the services that are available to help. Finding out more may give an enormous boost to your ability to cope.