Causes of Cerebral Palsy

Cerebral palsy causes vary, depending on the type of disorder the child has. Knowing what may have caused your child’s cerebral palsy can help you understand the disorder better, as well as help your child manage any associated conditions.


Congenital Cerebral Palsy

When a baby develops cerebral palsy either before or during birth, it’s known as congenital cerebral palsy. Congenital cerebral palsy remains the most common type of the disorder and can develop due to a myriad of causes, including:

  • Maternal infections, such as rubella, chicken pox and other infections.
  • Carrying twins or multiples
  • Placenta problems
  • Uterine rupture
  • Incompatible blood types (can lead to Rh factor diseases)
  • Chorioamnionitis
  • Medical negligence and mistakes (See below for more information)
  • Prematurity or low birth weight
  • Infertility treatments
  • Jaundice

Acquired Cerebral Palsy

Acquired cerebral palsy is defined as the disorder developing at least 28 or more days after the baby is born. This form of cerebral palsy accounts for around 20% of all people who have the disorder.

Common reasons for acquired cerebral palsy include:

  • Problems with blood flow to the brain, which can lead to blood clotting and fetal stroke
  • Sickle cell disease
  • Neonatal infections
  • Head injuries leading to brain damage

Brain Malformations

Brain malformations are defects that happen when the baby’s brain develops abnormally. Although it can occur any time during fetal development,  prior to 20 weeks gestation, the baby runs the highest risk of developing brain damage which may lead to cerebral palsy.


Jaundice is caused by bilirubin buildup in the blood in the first days to weeks after birth. Some cases of jaundice will clear up independently or with treatment. But when the bilirubin is very high and jaundice is left untreated, a form of brain damage called kernicterus may occur, which can lead to the infant developing cerebral palsy.

Rh Incompatibility

Rh incompatibility is a medical condition marked by the mother’s blood and infant’s blood being incompatible. The mother’s blood produces antibodies that destroy the infant’s blood cells during late pregnancy or after delivery. This in turn can lead to jaundice, which can lead to brain damage and increased risk of cerebral palsy.

Maternal Infections

Maternal infections such as measles, cytomegalovirus, toxoplasmosis, chickenpox, and certain other diseases, if not properly detected and treated, can lead to brain damage in the developing infant and increase the risk of cerebral palsy.

Prolonged Labor

Prolonged labor is labor that lasts longer than 16 to 24 hours. There are many possible complications of prolonged labor, including cerebral palsy. It is associated with the use of instruments, like forceps, which can physically damage a baby’s head.

Prolonged labor is also associated with a number of complications that can cause brain damage by asphyxiation, or deprivation of oxygen. These include a breech birth, a large baby, the baby getting stuck in the mother’s pelvis or in the birth canal, complications with the placenta or umbilical cord, and the failure of a doctor to perform a Cesarean section in time to prevent brain damage.

Brain Damage

Brain damage is one of the primary reasons that cerebral palsy occurs. It can happen before, during, or after birth.

Maternal high blood pressure and infections can lead to abnormal brain development or brain damage while an infant is still in utero.  It’s extremely important to get regular prenatal care and routine medical monitoring while pregnant.

Hemorrhaging is another cause of infant brain damage, and is more common in babies born prematurely. Hemorrhages can result after a baby has a problem with blood flow to the brain or reduced oxygen to the brain. Unfortunately, bleeding inside the brain isn’t necessarily visible and it isn’t until certain symptoms occur that a proper diagnosis can be made. In some instances, medical malpractice is the direct cause of infant hemorrhage (see the following section for additional details on medical negligence).

Medical Negligence

Unfortunately, there are some cases of cerebral palsy that could have been prevented if not for medical mistakes and negligence. In addition to failing to find and diagnose medical problems early in pregnancy in order to prevent damage, physicians can also significantly impact causes of brain damage during childbirth. Although these medical mistakes are not purposeful, the end result is that improper medical care of the patient can lead to severe problems.

The most common types of medical mistakes that can lead to cerebral palsy include:

  • Failure to identify, schedule, and carry out an emergency C-section
  • Failure to monitor infant heartbeat
  • Failure to identify, diagnose, and treat umbilical cord issues and/or placental issues
  • Failure to detect and treat maternal infections
  • Improper use of forceps or vacuum extraction tool during childbirth
  • Failure to get oxygen to an infant in time during childbirth
  • Failure to monitor oxygen levels
  • Surgical or anesthesia errors

Risk Factors That May Lead to Cerebral Palsy

The following risk factors heighten the risk of an infant developing cerebral palsy:

  • Breech-position birth (or other unusual positions)
  • A low APGAR score (indicating poor cardiac or respiratory function at or right after birth)
  • Extreme prematurity
  • Infertility treatments
  • Low birthweight infant (under 5 pounds)
  • Microcephaly (small head when born)
  • Infant seizures (shortly after birth)
  • Maternal illicit drug use
  • Maternal proteinuria (excessive protein in the mother’s urine indicating pre-eclampsia and maternal high blood pressure)
  • Maternal seizures (eclampsia)
  • Maternal blood clotting disorders
  • Maternal hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism

Keep in mind that not all infants exposed to these risk factors will develop cerebral palsy. Yet, it’s always important to be aware of potential contributors to the development of the disorder.

Tips to Help Prevent Cerebral Palsy

With so many potential risks and causes of cerebral palsy, it seems overwhelming to many parents. However, there are numerous steps you can take during pregnancy to give your baby the best chance of avoiding cerebral palsy.

  • Keep all of your prenatal appointments. Routine medical care can pick up on issues that can be dealt with early on.
  • Make sure your vaccinations are up to date, specifically chickenpox, measles and rubella vaccinations.
  • Blood type is important. Keep in mind that Rh incompatibility can lead to medical issues that can cause cerebral palsy.Your physician can treat Rh incompatibilities if caught early on, which can help prevent jaundice and kernicterus.
  • Avoid alcohol, tobacco and illicit drug use.
  • You can also start prevention prior to pregnancy by staying as healthy as possible, eating and sleeping well.

Related Pages

Do you suspect your child’s cerebral palsy was caused by a preventable birth injury?

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