If your baby moves in certain ways that don’t seem normal for a child their age, you may worry that they could have a condition like cerebral palsy.
Cerebral palsy (CP) is a disorder that affects the way that a person controls their muscles and movements. It’s caused by problems in brain areas that affect movement and muscle quality. Sometimes, a child’s brain didn’t fully form in these areas, which can lead to these problems.
Babies born premature are at greater risk of CP, as their brains may not have had time to fully develop. Other times, damage to the brain may take place during or after birth. Most often the cause is unknown.
Because there are very mild and very severe forms of cerebral palsy, a wide range of symptoms could signal this condition. Often, delays in baby milestones that are linked to muscle usage may be signs of CP. However, not all delays in milestones mean that your baby has cerebral palsy.
Some symptoms may appear at birth, while others may take longer to appear. Some babies are diagnosed with CP soon after they’re born. Others aren’t diagnosed until years later.
A doctor may first notice problems with your baby’s movements or muscle tone during scheduled visits. If you notice any problems like these at home, discuss what you see with the doctor.
Cerebral palsy doesn’t get worse as time passes, but often symptoms aren’t noticed right away. For example, you won’t know that a 3-month-old can’t walk, so symptoms are usually recognized later.
At every scheduled visit, the doctor will check to see if your baby is keeping up with their milestones or if they're delayed. They’ll watch how your baby moves to see if it’s the normal range. And they’ll ask if you have any concerns.
Your doctor can measure subtle changes over time. It may be harder for a doctor to know for sure if a 9-month-old has a delay than if a 2½-year-old has a delay, because it’s more likely that an earlier delay will be less obvious than a later one. This is why some children aren’t diagnosed until they’re older. Most children with cerebral palsy are diagnosed by the time they’re 2 years old. But if your baby’s symptoms are mild, they might not be diagnosed before they’re 4 or 5.
When a doctor suspects that your child has CP, they may suggest that you see a specialist like a neurologist (an expert on the brain and nerves) or a doctor who has special training in child development.
The doctor will do a physical exam and watch your child’s movements. They’ll ask about your child’s health history, and they’ll want to hear any concerns that you have about the way your child moves. They may need to also order tests to check for problems. These include:
- Blood tests. Other health problems may cause symptoms that can mimic CP. Your doctor may offer blood tests to rule out other conditions.
- CT scan. Although rarely used anymore, a CT scan employs X-ray technology to create images of the brain. CT scans are only used to image the brain in cases of an emergency, such as trauma.
- MRI uses a strong magnet, not X-rays. It uses no radiation and can produce higher-quality images than a CT scan. This can be helpful if the damage is hard to detect, but it may not always be needed.
- Ultrasounduses sound waves to produce an image of your baby’s brain. It may not be as helpful as an MRI at finding slight problems in the brain, but it’s an easier test for your baby to take. It can only be done in very young babies, before the soft spot gets too small.
- EEG (electroencephalogram). For this test, small electrodes will be stuck to your baby’s head to measure their brain waves. Sometimes this exam can help diagnose epilepsy (seizure disorder), which is somewhat common in children with cerebral palsy.
To figure out whether or not your baby has cerebral palsy, the doctor will look at the brain images and other test results. They’ll also review their firsthand exams of your baby over time, any milestone delays that they've had, plus what you’ve observed at home.
Once your child is diagnosed with CP, they can begin to receive treatment.