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Cerebral Palsy in Preemies: Risks, Symptoms, and Management

parents looking up how to manage cerebral palsy in preemies

Preemies account for anywhere between a third to half of all cerebral palsy diagnoses. Premature infants are born with underdeveloped brains, making them more vulnerable to damage that can cause cerebral palsy.

Thanks to advances in healthcare that allow for early identification and intervention, symptoms of cerebral palsy can be minimized to optimize a child’s quality of life.

This article will go over what to expect if your preemie has cerebral palsy and how to effectively manage it.

Is Premature Birth Preventable?

For a birth to be considered premature, the baby must be born before 37 weeks. About 1 in every 10 births is premature.

Many factors can cause premature birth including:

  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Genetic influence
  • Infections
  • Stress
  • Carrying multiple babies
  • Mother’s age
  • Pre-existing health problems

Mothers of preemies often blame themselves for premature birth but many times, the cause cannot be determined. Sometimes, it just happens.

Instead of feeling guilty, focus on staying positive and educate yourself on how to best care for your baby.

7 Signs of Cerebral Palsy in Preemies

prematurely born child with cerebral palsy

©iStock.com/jarenwicklund

Generally, the earlier a child is born, the higher the risk of developmental complications like cerebral palsy.

About 10% of preemies born before 28 weeks have cerebral palsy.

Therefore, it’s essential to keep an eye out for early signs of cerebral palsy. The sooner you identify complications and seek management for them, the less impact they’ll have on your child’s quality of life.

Signs of cerebral palsy in preemies include:

1. Developmental Delays

Typically, developmental delays are the first detectable sign of cerebral palsy in children.

Cerebral palsy can range from mild to severe. Often, mild cases go unnoticed until children start missing developmental milestones.  

Generally, by 12 months, children can stand. By 15 months, they should be able to walk on their own.   

Remember to adjust your preemie’s age! For example, if your baby is 12 months old and was born 8 weeks early, their adjusted age would be 10 months.

2. Abnormal Walking Patterns

Cerebral palsy can affect various areas of the body. The most common type of cerebral palsy is spastic diplegia, where only the legs have motor impairments.

As a result, preemies with spastic diplegia have completely normal upper body functions. Motor impairments may only become apparent once the child starts walking.

Walking patterns characteristic of cerebral palsy include:

It’s important to seek physical therapy and correct these walking patterns early to relieve excess pressure on the joints that can disrupt growth or cause pain.

3. Fatigue

Fatigue is an extremely common outcome of both premature birth and cerebral palsy.

Because of their motor impairments, individuals with cerebral palsy have to use more energy to move and tire out much quicker.

As a result, your preemie may require more time to perform everyday activities like feeding and getting dressed.  

4. Lack of Interaction with their Surroundings

girl demonstrating one of the symptoms of cerebral palsy in preemies

©iStock.com/boitano

While it might appear like your child is disinterested in exploring their surroundings, they usually aren’t.

Rather, their motor impairments make it difficult for them to move around, which discourages them from interacting with their environment.

5. Favoring One Side of the Body

Spastic hemiplegia is a type of cerebral palsy that only affects one side of the body.

While we all have a dominant side, children with spastic hemiplegia may develop a habit of using one side and avoid engaging the other at all.

For example, your child might tend to lean in a certain direction, drag a leg behind, or clench their affected hand.

Management for hemiplegia is essential to develop bilateral coordination.

6. Floppy or Stiff Muscles When Held

Depending on the location of brain damage, preemies may experience extremely high or low muscle tone.

When held, children with low muscle tone will feel floppy and might droop their heads.

Those with high muscle tone will feel stiff and resist movement, which can make it difficult to place them in a car seat or highchair.

7. Poor Feeding

If cerebral palsy affects the oral motor muscles, children may struggle to chew and swallow their food.

As a result, many children with cerebral palsy have feeding difficulties, which puts them at risk for malnutrition and dehydration.

Preemies are born smaller than infants born at term. They usually catch up in size around 2-3 years, but only with proper nutrition.   

If you notice that your infant is not eating very much, speak to your child’s pediatrician right away.

Now that you understand what symptoms to look out for in young children, let’s go over CP management.

Managing Cerebral Palsy in Preemies

toddler with cerebral palsy getting physical therapy

©iStock.com/Antonio_Diaz

One of the best practices for managing cerebral palsy in preemies is to get regular checkups to make sure your child is developing at a healthy rate.

Physicians often hesitate to diagnose mild cerebral palsy in infanthood because motor impairments identified before the age of 1 often resolve on their own.

However, parents shouldn’t passively wait until symptoms improve or worsen. Even if your infant doesn’t have cerebral palsy, early management for motor problems can significantly improve mobility.

Management for cerebral palsy typically consists of:

  • Physical therapy (to stretch and strengthen tight muscles and improve range of motion)
  • Occupational therapy (to learn how to use adaptive tools and perform everyday activities)
  • Speech therapy (for feeding or communication difficulties)
  • Proper nutrition (to promote normal growth and musculoskeletal health)
  • Orthotics (to support proper musculoskeletal alignment)
  • Medications (to temporarily relieve high muscle tone)

Early management is proactive and helps control symptoms before they turn into habits.

Additionally, children’s brains have more plasticity than adult brains, which makes it easier for them to adapt and replace abnormal movement patterns.

Understanding Cerebral Palsy in Preemies: Key Points

Children born prematurely have an increased risk of cerebral palsy.

Therefore, parents need to be aware of what symptoms to look out for and seek management as early as possible.

Hopefully, this article helped you better understand cerebral palsy in preemies and the importance of early management. Good luck!

Featured image: ©iStock.com/monkeybusinessimages

Keep It Going: See Fun Ways to Recover from Cerebral Palsy

Finally! There’s a recovery device for CP that’s actually fun to use. See how Flint Rehab’s tools are helping with CP recovery:

“The FitMi and MusicGlove have done wonders for my son with hemiparesis from cerebral palsy and stroke. It motivates him to do his exercises. It does not seem like therapy for him since it is fun. It monitors his progress so it is a great reinforcement for him. Music is a motivator for him. He has been using it on his arm and we will try the leg exercises soon.”

FitMi works by motivating high repetition of therapeutic exercises while playing an engaging game. This gamification has been particularly great for motivating individuals with cerebral palsy to recover.

To see how FitMi works, click here »