Is Cerebral Palsy Diagnosed at Birth?

Cerebral palsy is a physical disorder that is caused by brain damage before, during, or shortly after birth.  Since the injuries that cause cerebral palsy occur around the time of childbirth, many people wonder, “is cerebral palsy diagnosed at birth?” The answer to this question is not as simple as a “yes” or “no”.  Every case is different, and every child’s health is unique.  In order to answer this question, we must look at what causes cerebral palsy, and how it is most commonly recognized and diagnosed.

What is Cerebral Palsy?

The term cerebral palsy is used to describe a group of disorders that can affect the child’s muscles, coordination, reflexes, posture, movement, balance, and in some cases even their communication skills.  How cerebral palsy affects each child varies.

The vast majority of cerebral palsy cases are considered “congenital”, meaning that the brain damage occurred before or during childbirth.  The primary causes of congenital cerebral palsy include:

  • Low birth weight (less than 5.5 pounds)
  • Prematurity (born before 37 weeks)
  • Multiple births (twins, triplets, etc.)
  • Assisted reproductive technology (ART)
  • Maternal infections while pregnant
  • Maternal health conditions (seizures, thyroid problems, etc.)
  • Complications during birth (uterine rupture, placenta previa, umbilical cord problems, disrupted oxygen supply, etc.)
  • Infant jaundice or kernicterus

A smaller percentage of cerebral palsy cases are considered “acquired”, meaning that the brain damage occurs 28 days or more after birth.  The primary causes of acquired cerebral palsy include:

  • Infant infections (meningitis, encephalitis, etc.)
  • Brain injury (head injury due to auto accident, abuse, or other trauma)
  • Restricted blood flow to the brain (clotting problem, cerebrovascular accidents, stroke, bleeding in the brain, etc.)

Depending on the nature and severity of the brain damage, cerebral palsy may present a variety of symptoms.  These symptoms and your child’s overall health will factor into how your child is diagnosed.

Is Cerebral Palsy Diagnosed at Birth?

Diagnosing cerebral palsy is not as simple as a blood test or other standard diagnostic tool.  There is no known test that can confirm or deny the presence of cerebral palsy.  In answering the question of “is cerebral palsy diagnosed at birth”, we must consider the following:

  • Children with severe cerebral palsy may be diagnosed at birth or shortly thereafter.
  • In some cases, symptoms are so mild that they are not noticeable until the child is 12-18 months old.
  • Most cases of cerebral palsy can be diagnosed within two years of birth.
  • Some cases of cerebral palsy may not be diagnosed until the child’s brain is fully developed, which occurs at around three to five years old.

How is Cerebral Palsy Diagnosed?

Diagnosing cerebral palsy can be a complicated task.  As we have discussed, there are many variables that may impact the severity of the disorder, as well as the symptoms displayed.  With no fool-proof standardized method of diagnosing the disorder, healthcare providers must look at several factors when making a diagnosis.  These factors include:

  • Monitoring: Often, parental monitoring is the first sign that a child may have cerebral palsy. Parents and healthcare providers can look for indicators, such as:
    • Is the child meeting height and weight chart standards?
    • Is the child reaching developmental milestones on target?
    • How are the child’s reflexes?
    • Is the child able to focus on parents or caregivers, hear, and respond?
    • Does the child’s movement or posture seem abnormal?
  • Review: Your healthcare provider will also conduct a thorough review of your child’s overall health, as well as factors that may impact his or her health, such as genetics and birth injuries. This review may include:
    • Assessment of maternal reproductive health
    • Reviewing maternal and paternal health records
    • Reviewing labor and delivery records
    • Reviewing newborn APGAR and other screens
  • Testing: If your healthcare provider believes there are indicators enough to warrant testing, he or she may conduct one or more of the following tests:
    • Neuroimaging to check for brain damage
    • Electroencephalography (EEG) or electromyography (EMG) to assess nervous system function
    • Laboratory tests (genetic testing, urine, or blood samples)
    • Evaluation tests (speech, hearing, vision, mobility, feeding, digestion, cognitive function, gait, balance, and rehabilitation needs)

Unfortunately, diagnosing cerebral palsy can be a lengthy process, which is very difficult for parents and families.  Without a formal diagnosis, families may struggle to get the proper care needed for their child.

Getting Help with Cerebral Palsy Diagnosis and Treatment

For quite some time, there have been concerns among advocates and parents that part of the reason why diagnosing cerebral palsy can take so long is in an effort to pass the statute of limitations in cases where a birth injury, medical malpractice, or negligence occurred.  While most children can be diagnosed within two years of birth, there are many cases where children have symptoms and enter the diagnostic process, but do not get a formal diagnosis until they are much older, such as 8 years or older.

For parents who believe their child’s cerebral palsy was caused by a birth injury or doctor negligence, it is incredibly important to contact an attorney as soon as possible to discuss your case.  Cerebral palsy diagnosed at birth or later in life can have a major impact on your child and family. It is important that you understand your legal rights and the options that may be available to you in terms of support.

To learn more about cerebral palsy diagnosis, treatment, or options for support, contact Brown & Brothers to speak with one of our birth injury attorneys.  Fill out our online form to schedule your free case review.