How Cerebral Palsy in Premature Babies Is Diagnosed

Female doctor examining newborn baby in incubator

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Cerebral palsy, or CP for short, is a brain disorder that causes impaired movement. Cognitive and sensory problems, as well as epilepsy, also may be present.​

Cerebral palsy can occur when part of the brain fails to develop properly in an unborn baby. An injury to the brain before, during, or after birth can also cause CP. Cerebral palsy is permanent—treatment may help someone with cerebral palsy to move better, but the underlying injury to the brain can’t be repaired. Cerebral palsy is also non-progressive. Although time might cause the symptoms to worsen, the injury to the brain won’t get any worse.

Who Is at Risk?

Although all babies are at risk for cerebral palsy, the risk goes up dramatically for very premature babies. About 1 to 2 out of 1,000 term babies will have CP. For babies born at less than 28 weeks gestation, though, the risk is 100 out of 1,000 surviving infants.

How to Tell If a Baby Has Cerebral Palsy

Unfortunately, most cases of cerebral palsy cannot be accurately diagnosed until about age 2. Many babies, especially those who were born premature, may show signs of an abnormality in the brain that disappear as they get older. If your baby is not meeting his or her milestones on time, even after adjusting for gestational age, then share your concerns with your pediatrician.


Because there is no definitive test for cerebral palsy, doctors will look at several things before making the diagnosis. First, the doctor will talk to the parents and observe the child. The parents will be questioned about when the child learned to sit, stand, and walk, and the doctor will evaluate the child’s posture, reflexes, and muscle tone. The doctor also may use an assessment scale to help decide if a child has CP or not, and an MRI may be ordered to look for abnormalities in the brain.

Cerebral Palsy Doctor Discussion Guide

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Although cerebral palsy cannot be cured, treatment can help symptoms be less severe. Physical and occupational therapy can help patients walk better, stretch their muscles, and learn to overcome physical challenges to care for themselves and participate in day-to-day life. Speech therapy can help treat swallowing and communication problems, and counseling can help patients and families cope with the diagnosis.

In cases where therapy alone is not effective, medications can be used to prevent seizures and relax muscles. Braces can help patients walk better and have better balance, and wheelchairs can be used for patients who aren’t able to walk. Surgery also can correct some problems in the muscles.


Preventing preterm birth is the best way to prevent cerebral palsy. If you are pregnant and have risk factors for premature birth, then try to reduce your risk however you can. Magnesium sulfate may help reduce the risk of cerebral palsy among moms who expect to deliver early, although more research is needed.

It is important to note that events right around the time of birth only rarely cause cerebral palsy. Although it was once thought that lack of oxygen during birth was a major cause of CP among otherwise healthy newborns, less than 10% of cases of CP occur during birth.

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Article Sources

  • National Institutes of Health. Cerebral Palsy Information Page.

  • Paneth N. Establishing the diagnosis of cerebral palsy. Clinical Obstetrics and Gynecology. 2008;51:742-8.