It has been estimated that nearly 70% of all cerebral palsy cases are caused by injuries that occur before birth. A wide variety of events can injure a developing baby, and in cases of cerebral palsy, these injuries inhibit normal development of the brain. In rare cases, brain injuries that occur during early childhood can also cause cerebral palsy. Often times, the precise cause of brain injury in a child with cerebral palsy is difficult – if not impossible – to identify.
Maternal infections are thought to be one of the most common causes for brain injuries in developing babies. Some infections, including rubella, cytomegalovirus and toxoplasmosis, directly impact the placental membrane that protects unborn children as they grow in the womb. Reproductive and urinary tract infections also increase the risk of brain injury, as well as pre-term delivery which can lead to brain injury in itself.
Insufficient oxygen supply can also lead to brain injury. A developing baby may not receive sufficient oxygen if the placenta or umbilical cord are not functioning properly, or if either essential tissue tears away from the uteran wall before birth. Asphyxia occurs when oxygen is off during delivery if the umbilical cord becomes wrapped around a baby’s neck, inhibiting his ability to breathe. Until recently, many cases of cerebral palsy were incorrectly attributed to asphyxia, but today it’s believed less than 10% of cerebral palsy causing injuries are actually caused by this event.
In rare cases, a baby’s blood type is incompatible with her mother’s, which can cause Rh disease to occur. Rh disease often causes severe jaundice and brain damage – which can lead to cerebral palsy. Fortunately, Rh disease can often be prevented by proper prenatal care. Simple tests can identify incompatibility of blood types, and Rh-negative women can be given an injection during their 28th week of pregnancy and to an Rh-positive baby after birth to prevent the condition from forming.
Babies who are born prematurely are at increased risk of developing a brain injury. Some studies have shown that premature infants weighing less than 3 1/3 pounds are up to 30 times more likely to suffer from a brain injury that leads to cerebral palsy. Premature delivery can cause bleeding in the brain, which can injure the delicate tissues of the brain.
Bilirubin is a pigment that can cause jaundice in newborn babies. Jaundice causes severe yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes when too much is present in a baby’s body, and if left untreated, can cause injuries that lead to cerebral palsy. Like Rh-disease, preventative measures can be taken to minimize the risk of cerebral palsy in jaundiced babies. Babies with jaundice can easily be treated by being placed in an incubator that contains special lights that break down the bilirubin in their bodies.
Additional cases of cerebral palsy can be attributed to injuries that are caused by brain malformations and genetic diseases. In extremely rare cases, it can be caused by a brain injury that occurs during the first few years of life. About 10% of children with cerebral palsy developed the condition as the result of childhood meningitis, an infection or a traumatic brain injury.