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Cerebral palsy is a physical disability that makes it hard for children to control their muscles and movements. Early intervention services can make a big difference to children’s quality of life, so it’s worth exploring your child’s options for services and support.
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In Australia, approximately one child is born with cerebral palsy every 15 hours.
 

What is cerebral palsy?

Cerebral palsy (CP) is a disability that affects your child’s ability to control his muscles. It’s caused by damage to the brain while the brain is developing. Cerebral palsy is the most common childhood physical disability in Australia.

Causes of cerebral palsy

Cerebral palsy can happen when there is brain damage or there are problems with brain development in the parts of the brain that control muscle movements.

Damage or problems with brain development can happen when:

  • your child’s brain doesn’t develop properly during pregnancy

  • your baby is born prematurely and the brain isn’t fully developed (up to 45% of cases of cerebral palsy happen this way)

  • mum has a particular virus while she’s pregnant

  • baby doesn’t get enough oxygen during birth

  • baby has a stroke during pregnancy or after birth (stroke is the leading cause of cerebral palsy in newborns)

  • baby gets a particular infection shortly after birth

  • baby experiences certain kinds of injuries during childhood.  

Types of cerebral palsy

There are three different types of cerebral palsy.

Spastic cerebral palsy
If your child has this type of cerebral palsy, her muscles stiffen up or become tight automatically. This happens because messages from her brain to her muscles can’t get through clearly.

Dyskinetic cerebral palsy
In this type of cerebral palsy, when your child tries to move he might make twisting, repetitive movements with his arms, hands, legs, feet and around his mouth without meaning to. These movements might make it very difficult for him to sit or stand. Dystonia and athetosis are two types of these movement problems.

Ataxic cerebral palsy
If your child has this type of cerebral palsy, she will have shaky and unsteady movements or tremors. She will also have problems with balance and might walk with her feet wide apart to help her balance.

Most people with cerebral palsy actually have a combination of two or more of these types of cerebral palsy.

Symptoms and effects of cerebral palsy

Every child with cerebral palsy has a different combination of symptoms.

The severity of the symptoms of cerebral palsy also varies from child to child. Some children will have quite mild symptoms, and others will have quite severe symptoms. Many children with cerebral palsy can walk well and communicate effectively. About one-third of children with cerebral palsy will need extra help to get around, and one-quarter won’t be able to talk.

The effects of cerebral palsy can be different in different children. One child might be affected mainly on one side of the body (like a stroke in an adult), and another child might be affected in both legs. And yet another child might have effects in both legs, arms and body. Many children feel the effects of cerebral palsy in the muscles of their faces, mouths and throats. This can affect communication, eating and drinking.

Babies
Babies with cerebral palsy might have:

  • problems with feeding
  • slow or delayed development (such as holding their heads up or sitting up later than other babies)
  • unequal movements across their bodies (such as taking no notice of one hand)
  • poor muscle control
  • low muscle tone
  • muscle spasms or feeling stiff when you try to move their joints.

Some babies with cerebral palsy might have been sick or premature when they were newborns. But about half of all babies later diagnosed with cerebral palsy were full term and well at the time of birth.

Sometimes these signs might not be obvious in your baby, but you might have the feeling that something isn’t right. You know your baby best, so trust your instincts and keep talking to your maternal child and family health nurse, GP or paediatrician about your concerns.

Children
The most common problems for children with cerebral palsy are feeding, pain, sleep and communication.

Other problems can include:

  • intellectual disability or learning disabilities in about 45% of children
  • behaviour difficulties in about 25% of children
  • epilepsy.

Other health issues
Many children with cerebral palsy also experience other health issues including reflux, constipation, vision impairment and hearing loss.

Your child with cerebral palsy will have a team of health professionals to look after him. You can work with them to find the best strategies for caring for his health.

If your baby has cerebral palsy, her brain damage won’t get worse. But it can get harder for her body to manage extra challenges as she grows up – for example, it might be hard to keep walking once she gets tall during growth spurts in the teenage years. Diagnosing cerebral palsy early and managing it well will give your child the best chance. And even if your child wasn’t diagnosed early, it’s never too late for intervention. 

Diagnosis and tests

Because cerebral palsy is a complex disability with no genetic cause, getting a clear diagnosis before 12 months isn’t always easy.

All babies develop at different rates and do things at their own pace. But if your baby hasn’t reached his developmental milestones or you’re worried that your baby is learning to move, sit or use his hands slower than you expect, it’s always worth talking to your GP, maternal child and family health nurse or paediatrician.

A doctor can diagnose cerebral palsy after taking a complete medical history and thoroughly examining your child. The doctor will look at your child’s voluntary movements and muscle tone, checking carefully for floppy muscles or stiff and tight muscles. The doctor will also be checking on whether your child holds herself in an unusual way or uses one side of her body more than the other. The doctor might also order tests to rule out other rarer conditions that get worse over time.

Some doctors might order an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) or CT (computed tomography) scan, which can take pictures of your child’s brain. But about 20% of children with cerebral palsy will have a normal MRI.

Getting a confirmed diagnosis can take a long time because your child might have to see a few different specialists and go through a range of tests. Although the wait can be hard, it’s important for the doctors to rule out other movement conditions or other causes of movement delay. This is because the treatments for different conditions and delays can be different.

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Early intervention services

Early intervention services connect you with health professionals who can help you learn how to support your child’s development and help him reach his full potential.

The team of professionals who might be involved in supporting you and your child includes:

Together, you and your team will be able to choose treatment and therapy options to best help your child.

These might include structured opportunities to practise eating, dressing and walking, as well as equipment and technology to help your child be independent. Botox (Botulinum toxin A) is commonly used to relax overactive, stiff muscles. Your child might also need special equipment, medications and surgery down the track.

As your child gets older, it’s important to stay in touch with these services. They can keep checking the health of your child’s muscles, bones and joints.

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Children who have a confirmed diagnosis of cerebral palsy are eligible for up to $12 000 from the Australian Government’s Better Start for Children with Disability initiative. Better Start funds early intervention services, which can improve outcomes for children with disabilities such as cerebral palsy.

Looking after yourself

Family life with a child with cerebral palsy can be emotional and challenging. It will probably help you to have a supportive network of family, friends, parents of children with cerebral palsy and health professionals.

Although it’s quite normal to get caught up in looking after your child, it’s important to look after your own wellbeing too. If you’re physically and mentally well, you’ll be better able to care for your child. Siblings of children with disability might also be emotionally affected, and it’s important to find appropriate support for them too.

Many services and supports can help your child with cerebral palsy achieve his potential. But finding your way through the disability services system can be tricky. Our Disability Services Pathfinder can help.
Talking to other parents can also be a great way to get support. You can connect with other parents in a similar situation in our parents of children with cerebral palsy forum.
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  • Last Updated 06-06-2012
  • Last Reviewed 25-06-2012
  • Acknowledgements Content funded by the Australian Government Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, and developed in collaboration with the Better Start Initiative.
  • Ashwal, S., Russman, B.S., Blasco, P.A., Miller, G., Sandler, A., Shevell, M., & Stevenson, R. (2004). Practice parameter: Diagnostic assessment of the child with cerebral palsy. Report of the Quality Standards Subcommittee of the American Academy of Neurology and the Practice Committee of the Child Neurology Society. Quality Standards Subcommittee of the American Academy of Neurology, Practice Committee of the Child Neurology Society. Neurology, 62(6), 851.

    Australian Cerebral Palsy Research Group (2009). Australian Cerebral Palsy Register Report 2009: Birth Years 1993-2003. Retrieved August 17, 2012 from https://secure.cpregister-aus.com.au/pubs/pdf/ACPR-Report.pdf

    Cerebral Palsy Alliance. About cerebral palsy. Retrieved May 23, 2012, from http://www.cerebralpalsy.org.au/about-cerebral-palsy/basic-guide-to-cerebral-palsy/diagnosing-cerebral-palsy.

    Department of Developmental Medicine, Royal Children’s Hospital. (2006). Cerebral palsy: An information guide for parents. Melbourne: RCH. 

    Kirton, A., Armstrong-Wells, J., Chang, T., Deveber, G., Rivkin, M.J., Hernandez, M., Carpenter, J., Yager, J.Y., Lynch, J.K., & Ferriero, D.M. (2011). Symptomatic neonatal arterial ischemic stroke: The International Pediatric Stroke Study. Pediatrics, 128(6), 1402-1410.