Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. For regularly updated information on a variety of health topics, please visit familydoctor.org, the AAFP patient education website.

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Am Fam Physician. 2006;73(1):101-102

See related article on cerebral palsy.

What is cerebral palsy?

Cerebral palsy is a disability caused by infection or brain damage. Children with cerebral palsy may have stiff muscles or make unusual muscle movements. These symptoms make normal movements hard to do. Babies with cerebral palsy may be slow to roll over, sit, crawl, smile, or walk.

What causes brain damage?

Brain damage can happen anytime during pregnancy or up until the baby is about two years old. In most cases, doctors do not know what caused the damage. If you bled while you were pregnant, had a hard or long labor, if your baby was not healthy at birth, or if your baby was small or born early your child has a higher risk of cerebral palsy.

How can the doctor tell if my child has cerebral palsy?

Your doctor will look at your child’s muscles, posture, and reflexes. The doctor also will ask you when your child first walked, crawled, rolled over, or if your child uses one hand more than the other. Special tests also can help the doctor tell if your child has cerebral palsy.

Finally, the doctor may test to see if your child has any learning problems. Some children with cerebral palsy cannot use their mouth muscles to speak clearly. It is important not to assume these children have mental retardation because of speech problems.

What can I do if my child has cerebral palsy?

A care team will help make a treatment plan if your child is diagnosed with cerebral palsy. The team will help your child be as independent as possible. The care team includes you (the parents), your family doctor, and other specialists.

What will happen as my child grows up with cerebral palsy?

Cerebral palsy will not get better or worse over time, but new problems might come up as your child gets older. Talk to your doctor about long-term care of your child.

Remember to take care of your own physical and mental health and that of your other family members. As you get older, provide a current will and care instructions for your child.

Where can I get more information?

American Academy for Cerebral Palsy and Developmental Medicine

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

Easter Seals

March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation

National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities

United Cerebral Palsy Association

  • Web site:http://www.ucpa.org

  • Telephone: 1-800-872-5827

  • TTY: 202-776-0406

  • E-mail:webmaster@ucp.org

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