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When Your Child Has Cerebral Palsy (CP)

Cerebral palsy (CP) causes a child to have problems with certain motor skills. This means that he or she may have trouble with coordination, movement, or muscle control. These problems are due to damage or abnormal development of certain brain areas. Many children with cerebral palsy have normal intelligence in spite of their difficulty with motor skills. CP can range in severity, but it doesn’t worsen over time. Unfortunately, CP does not improve over time either. With diagnosis and treatment, children can learn how to manage their condition.

What are the causes of CP?

Most children with CP are born with it. CP is caused by problems with brain development before birth or early injury to the brain during the time of birth. CP is slightly more common in boys than girls. Babies with low birth weight or who are born before their due date (premature babies) are more likely to have the condition. Often there is no definite cause of CP. 

What are the different types of CP?

CP can be divided into different types. These include:

  • Spastic CP, in which a child has more muscle tone than normal in the arms, torso, or legs. This causes the muscles to be stiff and jerk or spasm. In some cases, only one side of the body is affected.

  • Athetoid CP, in which a child has poor muscle control causing uncontrolled or sudden movements of the arms, legs, hands, or feet. In some cases, the facial muscles or the tongue are also affected.

  • Ataxic CP, in which a child has less muscle tone than normal and more difficulty in coordinating movement. This can lead to problems walking or performing certain tasks such as dressing oneself.

What are the symptoms of CP?

CP affects each child differently. Symptoms can range from mild to severe. Your child may have CP involving one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Weak muscles in the face, tongue (which can cause slurred speech), arms, legs, hands, or feet

  • Trouble swallowing, which causes drooling

  • Poor posture

  • Unbalanced walk

  • Wide gait (legs spread far apart when walking)

 CP and other health problems

Children with CP are more likely to have certain other health problems. These can include:

  • Vision, hearing, or speech problems

  • Convulsions or seizures

  • Learning or reasoning problems including intellectual disability

  • Behavior problems

  • Trouble with feeding

  • Bladder or bowel control problems

  • Abnormal bone development

Your child’s healthcare provider will give you more information about any other health problems your child has.

How is CP diagnosed?

Your child will likely see a pediatric neurologist for diagnosis and treatment. This is a healthcare provider who specializes in neurologic problems. There is no single test that can definitively diagnose CP. It takes time to establish this diagnosis. 

  • If CP is suspected, the healthcare provider performs a physical exam. He or she also asks about your child’s symptoms and health history. This is to check for the timing of possible brain damage or injury to your child.

  • The healthcare provider may order blood tests or imaging tests for your child. These can sometimes help the healthcare provider learn more about your child’s condition.

  • Most important is the screening of developmental milestones. Failing to meet motor milestones is a sign of cerebral palsy.

  • CP usually cannot be diagnosed until your child is about 2 years old. It takes time for the healthcare provider to track your child's physical and mental development. Babies with CP are slower to develop certain skills. For example, a child may take a longer amount of time learning how to roll over, sit up, crawl, or walk. Based on your child's progress by age 2, your child's healthcare provider can then confirm the diagnosis. Usually by age 3 or 4, there is enough information to predict how your child will function in the years to come.

How is CP treated?

CP is permanent and cannot be cured. The goals of treating CP are to reduce pain, enhance mobility, and prevent complications from the motor impairment.

  • Treatment of CP varies depending on your child's needs. Your child will likely work with a team of teachers, healthcare providers, nurses, and therapists to learn how to manage his or her condition.

  • Most children benefit from supportive services. These can include special learning facilities, or physical, occupational, or speech therapy.

  • Medicines may be prescribed to help manage symptoms, such as muscle spasms. These may include newer treatment choices, such as the medicine baclofen, that may be able to manage the spasticity associated with cerebral palsy, and botulinum toxin type A, which is a muscle-relaxing drug that can help relieve the toe-walking that is related to muscle tightening.

  • Other medicines can be used to decrease uncontrollable movements.

  • Aids, such as a walker or leg braces, may be needed to help your child maintain balance and help with walking. Some children may not walk at all and need a wheelchair.

  • Many children with cerebral palsy will require tendon release surgery later in life in order to improve severe spasticity and reduce pain.

What are the long-term concerns?

CP is an ongoing problem that needs to be managed. With regular medical care and supportive services, your child can learn how to be as active and independent as possible.

Although life expectancy depends on many factors, most individuals with CP can enjoy a healthy lifespan. It is important that life-threatening conditions connected to CP are managed, and healthy medical care and lifestyle supports are in place.

 Coping with your child’s condition

A positive outlook helps while supporting your child. Encourage your child to be active and to try new things. Consider counseling, which can help you and your child deal with any worries or concerns. And seek help from friends, community resources, and support groups. The more you learn about your child’s condition, the more in control you may feel. For more information about CP, start by contacting United Cerebral Palsy at

Online Medical Reviewer: Adler, Liora C., MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Bass, Pat F. III, MD, MPH
Date Last Reviewed: 9/20/2015
© 2000-2015 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.