Cerebral Palsy: The Importance of Early Detection

Published on: 10/21/2022

By Monica Payares-Lizano, MD

Pediatric Orthopedic Surgeon

About Dr. Payares-Lizano

If you're a parent or thinking about becoming one, it's important to be aware of cerebral palsy (CP) in order to recognize the signs and symptoms. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cerebral palsy affects between 1 and 4 out of every 1,000 children worldwide, and it's the most common motor disability among children. 

Risk factors for cerebral palsy

What can be perplexing about CP for parents is that the cause is difficult to identify. In fact, in many cases the specific cause is not known. What researchers do know is that 85 to 90 percent of CP cases start before the baby is born. Risk factors that can make a baby more likely to develop CP include:

  • Birth weight lower than 5 1/2 pounds
  • Birth before 37 weeks of gestation (prematurity)
  • Multiple births
  • Birth after some infertility treatments
  • A baby born with jaundice or kernicterus
  • Infections during pregnancy
  • Some complications during birth
  • Some medical conditions in the mother (seizures, thyroid problems or intellectual disabilities)
Signs of cerebral palsy can occur quite early, even before 6 months of age. The tricky thing at this age is that the primary signs of CP are delays in developmental milestones, which can also occur in children without CP, as well.

Recognizing the signs & symptoms of cerebral palsy

Despite these challenges, research shows that it's important to detect and diagnose CP as early as possible. According to the American Academy of Cerebral Palsy and Developmental Medicine (AACPDM), early detection offers parents and their children with CP several advantages. For one, it allows medical specialists to begin early intervention techniques that can improve quality of life and prevent complications. It also will introduce the child to regular monitoring and assessment to prevent future issues such as muscle contractures, hip dislocations or scoliosis. Finally, it provides peace of mind for parents and prevents future stress related to a late CP diagnosis in their child.

Though early detection of CP can be challenging, the good news is that specialists have greatly improved their ability to diagnose it early in recent years. Traditionally, CP has been diagnosed between the ages of 12 and 24 months. But improvements in standardized assessment tools have led to earlier and more accurate detections. This is an important development, as the AACPDM says that specialists can help improve your child's plasticity and flexibility when CP is detected earlier.

How can parents recognize early signs of cerebral palsy?

As a parent, the best thing you can do for your baby is to be vigilant about recognizing the potential signs and symptoms of CP. The AACPDM says that 86 percent of parents go to their doctor with concerns before an official diagnosis of CP is made, so clearly, parents play a huge role in the early detection process.

According to the CDC, the signs that parents should look for before a baby is six months old include:

  • A more stiff or floppy body than is typical
  • A baby that overextends the back and neck when cradled, as if pushing away from you constantly
  • Legs that get stiff, cross or scissor when picked up
  • A head that lags or flops more than usual upon picking up the baby
After 6 months of age, these are additional signs to look for:
  • Delay in rolling
  • Inability to bring hands together or bring hands to the mouth
  • Reaching out with one hand while keeping the other balled in a fist
  • Lopsided crawling behavior, such as dragging one leg behind while crawling with the other
  • Scooting on the bottom or knees without crawling on all fours

Of course, parents can also assist their health care providers in recognizing the signs of CP by attending regular wellness checkups. Every little bit helps when it comes to early detection and diagnosis of cerebral palsy.

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