What is cerebral palsy?
Cerebral palsy (CP) is a developmental disability that affects children’s ability to control their movements.
Children with cerebral palsy have problems like muscle weakness, stiffness, repetitive movements or shakiness. They might also have difficulties with balance.
Cerebral palsy is the most common childhood physical disability in Australia.
Causes of cerebral palsy
Cerebral palsy can happen when there’s 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 a:
- child’s brain doesn’t develop properly during pregnancy
- baby is born prematurely and the brain isn’t fully developed
- mother is exposed to certain viruses during pregnancy
- baby has a stroke during pregnancy or shortly after birth
- baby gets a severe brain infection shortly after birth
- baby doesn’t get enough oxygen during birth
- child experiences certain kinds of injuries during the early years of life – for example, a serious motor vehicle accident.
Types of cerebral palsy
There are 3 different types of cerebral palsy. Most children with cerebral palsy have a combination of 2 or more types – usually spastic and dyskinetic.
Spastic cerebral palsy
Children with this type of cerebral palsy have stiff, tight muscles. This happens because messages from their brains to their muscles can’t get through clearly.
This is the most common type of cerebral palsy.
Dyskinetic cerebral palsy
Children with this type of cerebral palsy have a lot of involuntary twisting and repetitive movements. These can be anywhere in the body and might make it very difficult for children to sit, stand, reach or grasp. These movements are worse when children do things like reach for a cup or talk, or when they’re tired, anxious or in pain.
This is the second most common type of cerebral palsy.
Ataxic cerebral palsy
Children with this type of cerebral palsy have shaky and unsteady movements or tremors. They also have problems with balance and might walk with their feet wide apart to help balance.
This type is the least common type of cerebral palsy.
Symptoms of cerebral palsy
Babies with cerebral palsy might have:
- problems with feeding
- slow or delayed development – for example, they might be slower than other babies to hold their heads up or sit up
- unequal movements across their bodies – for example, they might take no notice of one hand or show a preference for one hand early on
- poor muscle control
- low muscle tone
- muscle spasms or stiffness when you try to move their joints.
Children with cerebral palsy might have difficulties with:
Cerebral palsy can affect different parts of children’s bodies. For example:
- Some children are affected mainly on one side of their bodies.
- Some children are affected all over their bodies.
- Some children are affected mainly in the legs.
- Many children are affected in the muscles of their faces, mouths and throats. This can affect communication, eating and drinking.
The symptoms of cerebral palsy vary among children. For example:
- Children with mild symptoms might be able to walk and communicate well.
- Children with more severe symptoms might need extra help to get around, including wheelchairs. They might have difficulty doing everyday things. They might not be able to talk.
And as children get older, it can get harder for their bodies to manage extra challenges. For example, it might be hard for them to keep walking once they get taller during growth spurts in the teenage years.
Other symptoms and difficulties associated with cerebral palsy can include:
- intellectual disability or learning difficulties or disorders in about 45% of children
- behaviour difficulties
- vision impairment
- hearing loss.
Other health issues
Many children with cerebral palsy also experience other health issues including gastro-oesophageal reflux, constipation, epilepsy, orthopaedic problems and recurrent chest infections.
If you’re worried about how your child is developing, trust your instincts and talk to your child and family health nurse, GP or paediatrician, about your concerns.
Diagnosis and tests for cerebral palsy
It can sometimes take a while to get a clear diagnosis of cerebral palsy.
To diagnose cerebral palsy, a doctor will take a complete medical history and thoroughly examine 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 check whether your child holds themselves in an unusual way or uses one side of their body more than the other.
A physiotherapist and/or occupational therapist will probably assess your child’s movement too.
Your child might need to see other specialists and have several tests to rule out other conditions.
Early intervention for children with cerebral palsy
Early intervention is the best way to support your child’s development. Early intervention includes therapies, education and other supports that will help your child reach their full potential.
Early intervention should also include helping you learn how to spend time with your child in ways that support their development. Children learn the most from the people who care for them and with whom they spend most of their time, so everyday play and communication with you can help your child a lot.
You and your child will probably work with many health and other professionals as part of your child’s early intervention. These professionals might include paediatricians, physiotherapists, speech pathologists, occupational therapists and special education teachers.
It’s good to see yourself as working in partnership with your child’s professionals. When you combine your deep knowledge of your child with the professionals’ expertise, you’re more likely to get the best outcomes for your child.
Financial support for children with cerebral palsy
If your child has a confirmed diagnosis of cerebral palsy, they can get support under the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). The NDIS helps you get services and support in your community, and gives you funding for things like early intervention or one-off items like wheelchairs.
Looking after yourself and your family
It’s natural to get caught up in looking after your child, but it’s important to look after your own wellbeing too. If you take care of yourself, you’ll be better able to care for your child.
Talking to other parents can be a great way to get support. You can connect with other parents in similar situations by joining a face-to-face or an online support group.
If you have other children, they might have a range of feelings about having a sibling with disability. They need to feel that they’re just as important to you as your child with disability – that you care about them and what they’re going through. It’s important to talk with your other children, spend time with them, and find the right sibling support for them.