What is cerebral palsy?

Cerebral palsy (CP) is a disability that affects a child’s ability to control his muscles.

Children with cerebral palsy can have problems like muscle weakness, stiffness, awkwardness, slowness and shakiness. They might also have difficulties with balance.

Cerebral palsy is the most common childhood physical disability in Asia.

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:

  • a child’s brain doesn’t develop properly during pregnancy
  • a baby is born prematurely and the brain isn’t fully developed
  • a mother is exposed to certain viruses during pregnancy
  • a baby doesn’t get enough oxygen during birth
  • a baby has a stroke during pregnancy or after birth
  • a baby gets a severe brain infection shortly after birth
  • a child experiences certain kinds of injuries during the early years of life – for example, a serious motor vehicle accident.

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 birth.

Types of cerebral palsy

There are three different types of cerebral palsy.

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.

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 are worse when children do things like reach for a cup or talk. These movements might make it very difficult for children to sit, stand, reach or grasp.

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.

Most children 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 cerebral palsy symptoms also varies from child to child.

Some children have quite mild symptoms, and can walk well and communicate well. Children with severe cerebral palsy need to use a wheelchair at least some of the time and usually have difficulty doing everyday things. About one-third of children with cerebral palsy need extra help to get around, and one-quarter can't 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 mainly in the legs. And yet another child might have effects in legs, arms and body. Many children feel the effects of cerebral palsy in the muscles of their face, mouth and throat. This can affect communication, eating and drinking.

Babies
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.

Brain damage in babies with cerebral palsy won’t get worse. But it can get harder for their bodies to manage extra challenges as they grow up. For example, it might be hard for them to keep walking once they get taller during growth spurts in the teenage years.

Children
The most common problems for children with cerebral palsy are:

  • movement
  • feeding
  • pain
  • sleep
  • communication.

Other problems can include:

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.

You know your child best. If you’re worried about how your baby or 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

Cerebral palsy is a complex disability with many different symptoms and no single cause. This means that getting a clear diagnosis before 12 months isn’t always easy. It can also take a long time.

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 herself in an unusual way or uses one side of her body more than the other.

Your child might need to see a few specialists and have several tests to rule out other conditions.

Early intervention services for children with cerebral palsy

Although there’s no cure for cerebral palsy, early intervention can treat your child's symptoms, improve his outcomes and help him reach his full potential.

Through early intervention services, you can work with health professionals to choose the treatment and intervention options that will suit your child best.

The team of professionals involved in supporting you and your child might include paediatricians, physiotherapists, speech pathologists, occupational therapists and special education teachers.

Financial support for children with cerebral palsy

If your child has a confirmed diagnosis of cerebral palsy, she 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.

If you live in an area that isn’t yet covered by the NDIS, your child can get funding under the Better Start for Children with Disability initiative. If your child is eligible for the NDIS, he can move to the NDIS when it comes to your area. Read our NDIS and Better Start FAQs for more information.

Looking after yourself and your family

Although it’s 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.

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, these siblings of children with disability need to feel that they’re just as important to you – that you care about them and what they’re going through. It’s important to talk with them, spend time with them, and find the right support for them too.