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Causes - Cerebral palsy

Cerebral palsy is caused by a problem with the brain that happens before, during or soon after birth.

The brain can either being damaged or not develop normally, although the exact cause is not always clear.

Problems before birth

Cerebral palsy is usually caused by a problem that affects the development of a baby's brain while it's growing in the womb.

These include:

  • damage to part of the brain called white matter, possibly as a result of a reduced blood or oxygen supply – this is known as periventricular leukomalacia (PVL)
  • an infection caught by the mother – such as cytomegalovirus, rubellachickenpox or toxoplasmosis
  • a stroke – where there's bleeding in the baby's brain or the blood supply to their brain is cut off
  • an injury to the unborn baby's head

Problems during or after birth

Cerebral palsy can also sometimes be caused by damage to a baby's brain during or shortly after birth.

For example, it can be due to:

  • the brain temporarily not getting enough oxygen (asphyxiation) during a difficult birth
  • an infection of the brain, such as meningitis
  • serious head injury
  • choking or nearly drowning, resulting in the brain not getting enough oxygen
  • a very low blood sugar level
  • a stroke

Increased risk

Some things can increase a baby's risk of being born with cerebral palsy including:

  • being born prematurely (before the 37th week of pregnancy) – babies born at 32 weeks or earlier are at a particularly high risk
  • having a low birthweight
  • being part of a multiple birth, such as a twin or triplet
  • the mother smoking, drinking a lot of alcohol, or taking drugs such as cocaine, during pregnancy

Your doctor may recommend your baby has regular check-ups to look for symptoms of cerebral palsy during the first 2 years of their life if they have an increased risk of developing the condition.

Page last reviewed: 13 February 2020
Next review due: 13 February 2023