Premature Infants are Most At Risk for Developing Cerebral Palsy

During pregnancy, women do everything right.  Eating healthy, getting healthy levels of exercise, taking supplements and attending all prenatal appointments.  Unfortunately, sometimes infants suffer medical issues despite the best efforts of the mother.  One of the most common unexpected medical conditions that infants are diagnosed with is cerebral palsy.

Cerebral palsy occurs in around one out of every 500 live births.  Doctors often say that the exact cause of cerebral palsy is unknown.  Instead, the medical community recognizes risk factors that increase the chance of a baby developing cerebral palsy.  These include:

While the cause of cerebral palsy may not be known, doctors believe that any of these medical issues, or a combination thereof, put infants more at risk for developing the disorder.  Dr. Mary Stephens, who is the medical director at Jefferson Health’s Continuing Care Program, says,

“Although we can recognize many risk factors for the development of cerebral palsy, it’s often hard to build a causal pathway.  The development of cerebral palsy is typically due to multiple factors that affect growth and development of the brain during the prenatal period.”

Premature Infants are Most At Risk for Cerebral Palsy

Even though doctors believe there are a variety of issues that contribute to cerebral palsy, ultimately, preterm labor and delivery seems to be the most significant risk factor.  Research shows that infants at the greatest risk are those born before 28 weeks gestation, and who are less than three pounds-four ounces at birth.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that medical care for premature infants has changed a lot in the last few decades.  Infants born prematurely are much more likely to survive now, but that does not mean they are not at risk for conditions like cerebral palsy.  This is especially true if there are other factors involved during pregnancy or delivery.

Risk Factors for Premature Birth

According to the March of Dimes, one of the most important things you can do to reduce the risk of a premature birth is to recognize the risk factors and talk to your doctor.  Some of the most significant risk factors for premature birth and low birth weight include:

  • History of premature birth.
  • You are pregnant with multiples.
  • History of problems with your uterus or cervix.
  • You are overweight or underweight, or have an eating disorder.
  • You have connective tissue disorders, such as Ehlers-Danlos syndrome.
  • History of high blood pressure or preeclampsia during pregnancy.
  • You have diabetes.
  • You have a sexually transmitted disease.
  • During pregnancy you develop intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy (ICP), a liver condition that can develop during pregnancy.
  • Your amniotic sac ruptures too soon (water breaks too soon).
  • Your pregnancy is the result of in vitro fertilization.
  • You are pregnant with an infant who has been diagnosed with a birth defect, such as spina bifida or heart defects.
  • You are older than 35 years old.

These are some of the most common risk factors.  There may be other risk factors that are specific to your health.  Talk to your doctor about any risk factors that may impact your pregnancy or affect your infant.

How to Prevent Premature Birth

While some premature births are the result of medical conditions or complications of pregnancy that cannot be foreseen, there are things women can do to reduce the risk of a premature birth.  These include:

  • Get adequate medical care before and during pregnancy
  • Make sure you are up-to-date on all vaccines
  • Get to a healthy weight before getting pregnant
  • Maintain a healthy diet and exercise during pregnancy
  • If you have any chronic conditions, such as diabetes or thyroid problems, address those conditions with your doctor as soon as possible.
  • Protect yourself from infections, including foodborne illness, sexually-transmitted diseases and viral infections.
  • Wait at least 18 months between giving birth and conceiving again
  • Avoid alcohol and drugs
  • Keep your stress level under control
  • Get adequate rest throughout your pregnancy

In addition to these general guidelines, you should also follow any advice given by your healthcare provider.  Everyone is different and has different needs based on their overall health.

What Parents Should Know about Cerebral Palsy

Cerebral palsy is one of the most common disorders affecting infants.  Every year, 8,000 to 10,000 people receive a diagnosis of cerebral palsy.  The condition is named as it is because it affects the brain (cerebral) and causes paralysis (palsy).  Most often, the brain damage that causes cerebral palsy occurs shortly before, during or shortly after delivery.

If your child was born prematurely and he or she is at risk for cerebral palsy, there are some early signs that may warrant a call to your healthcare provider.  These include:

  • Poor feeding
  • Irritability
  • Poor sleeping
  • Missing milestones:
    • Not sitting up by eight months
    • Not walking by 18 months
    • Establishing hand preference at 12 months
  • Limited muscle control
  • Poor muscle tone
  • Abnormal reflexes
  • Lack of coordination or control
  • Difficulty with communication

If you notice any of these, talk to your healthcare provider about your child’s health and the possibility that he or she may have cerebral palsy.  To determine if your child does have cerebral palsy, your doctor will conduct a physical evaluation, review his or her medical history and will likely order neuroimaging tests.  Diagnosis often requires a multidisciplinary team of medical professionals who can address all aspects of your child’s health.

While there is no cure for cerebral palsy, treatment options can manage symptoms and improve overall quality of life.  There are multiple types of therapy that are beneficial, including occupational, speech and physical therapies.  There are also medications that can help manage symptoms.  The key to successful treatment is early intervention.  Dr. Stephens notes,

“Individuals with cerebral palsy have a broad range of abilities and capability, and early intervention at a time when the child’s brain is most pliable will give them the greatest opportunity to maximize their cognitive and functional potential.”

With early intervention and support from healthcare providers and family, your child can overcome obstacles related to cerebral palsy.  Life for a child with cerebral palsy does not mean that your child has a diminished quality of life.  How long do people with cerebral palsy live? Many people with the disorder live well into adulthood, leading fulfilling and productive lives.

Sam Uribe

Written By Sam Uribe

Sam Uribe is a researcher and writer. She lends her expertise to the team at Birth Injury Guide to provide up-to-date and relevant content that clients can count on.