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Why Do Infants Suffer Brain Damage and Cerebral Palsy?




child with cerebral palsy

Cerebral palsy is a condition that can severely affect a person’s muscle tone and control of body movements. According to United Cerebral Palsy:


According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, cerebral palsy arises from brain damage that can occur before, during or after an infant’s birth.

The following is a close look at factors that can arise in each of these three stages.

Before Birth

problems during pregnancy

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that between 85 and 90 percent of cerebral palsy cases are congenital, meaning the condition arose during pregnancy. Possible causes include:

  • Infections – Bacterial and viral infections can increase an infant’s protein levels and cause inflammation that results in brain damage. Types of infections that may arise before birth are:


  • Bacterial infections – Exposure to Escherichia coli (E. coli), Group B streptococcus (GBS) and methicillin-resistant Staphyloccus aureus (MRSA)
  • Viral infections – Cytomegalovirus (CMV), rubella (“German measles”) and chickenpox
  • Premature birth – A child born before the 37th week of the mother’s pregnancy faces an increased risk of developing cerebral palsy. The risk is even greater if the child is also born with a low birth weight (less than 5.5 pounds). The nervous system may not have fully developed in a child born prematurely. The child also is greatly exposed to the risk of infection.


  • Blood incompatibility – Rh disease arises from an incompatibility between the mother’s blood and her infant’s blood. The mother’s body responds by acting as if it is allergic to the body, according to the American Pregnancy Association. The mother may develop antibodies that attack the infant’s blood. Brain damage may result.


  • Fetal distress – Placental abruption, preeclampsia, eclampsia, gestational diabetes or giving birth to multiple babies may lead to the infant being deprived of oxygen in the womb. An emergency C-section typically must be performed.


  • Genetic disorders – Recent research indicates that cerebral palsy may be caused by genetic factors. A study published in 2012 in The Lancet Neurology medical journal suggested that doctors conduct genetic testing on children with symptoms of cerebral palsy.


During Birth

complications during birth

Complications during labor and delivery can lead to a child being deprived of oxygen or suffering head trauma that results in damage to the brain. These complications include:

  • Breech birth – A 2009 study found that cerebral palsy is four times more likely to develop in infants who are born feet first instead of head first.


  • Shoulder dystocia – Without immediate assistance, an infant may suffer brain damage if the infant’s head passes through the mother’s birth canal during delivery while the shoulders remain lodged behind the pubic bone.


  • Umbilical cord compression / prolapse – Compression of the umbilical cord can occur during the mother’s contractions. Prolapse of the umbilical cord occurs when the cord passes through the birth canal before the infant, and it becomes caught. If either complication occurs, a child may suffer hypoxia (reduced oxygen supply to the brain) or anoxia (complete loss of oxygen to the brain).


  • Placenta previa – Delivery complications arise when the placenta fails to move to the top of the mother’s uterus and covers a portion of or the entire cervix. This condition may be detected through an ultrasound. A C-section typically must be performed to prevent bleeding and oxygen deprivation.


  • Placental abruption – Bleeding and loss of oxygen may result if the placenta is separated from the uterus during delivery.


After Birth

infants with cerebral palsy

A small percentage of infants suffer brain damage after birth that leads to cerebral palsy, or around 10 percent, according to the CDC. This is also called acquired cerebral palsy. Possible causes include:

  • Jaundice – The CDC estimates that 60 percent of babies in the U.S. are born with jaundice. The condition occurs when a child’s liver fails to remove bilirubin from the bloodstream. It is marked by yellowish discoloration of the infant’s skin and eyes. If not promptly and properly treated, severe jaundice can lead to kernicterus – brain damage linked to cerebral palsy.


  • Head trauma – An infant may suffer traumatic brain injury (TBI) as the result of being shaken, falling or being involved in a motor vehicle accident.


  • Infections – The CDC states that infants face a higher risk of infections than other age groups, including infections that can lead to bacterial meningitis (a cause of brain damage).


Sources / Additional Information

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