Cerebral palsy : Causes

Cerebral palsy is caused by a problem with the brain that occurs before, during or soon after birth.

It can be the result of the brain either being damaged or not developing normally, although the exact cause isn't always clear.

Problems before birth

Cerebral palsy is most often due to a problem that affects the development of a baby's brain while it's growing in the womb.

These include:

  • periventricular leukomalacia (PVL) – damage to part of the brain called white matter, possibly as a result of a reduction in the baby's blood or oxygen supply
  • an infection caught by the mother – such as cytomegalovirus, rubellachickenpox or toxoplasmosis
  • stroke in the baby – this is where there's bleeding in the baby's brain or the blood supply to their brain is cut off
  • an injury to the unborn baby's head

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Problems during or after birth

Cerebral palsy is also sometimes caused by damage to a baby's brain during or shortly after birth.

For example, it can be due to:

  • the brain temporarily not getting enough oxygen (asphyxiation) during a difficult birth
  • an infection of the brain, such as meningitis
  • serious head injury
  • choking or nearly drowning, resulting in the brain not getting enough oxygen
  • a very low blood sugar level
  • a stroke

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Increased risk

There are some things that can increase a baby's risk of being born with cerebral palsy.

These include:

  • being born prematurely (before the 37th week of pregnancy) – babies born at 32 weeks or earlier are at a particularly high risk
  • a low birth weight
  • a twin or multiple pregnancy
  • the mother being 35 years of age or older
  • the mother having unusually low blood pressure or high blood pressure

Your doctor may recommend that your baby has regular check-ups to look for symptoms of cerebral palsy for the first two years of their life if there's an increased risk they could have cerebral palsy.

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