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Although in some instances doctors cannot determine exactly why a child develops cerebral palsy, there are a number of different risk factors that may play a role.
Risk Factor #1: Birth Complications
Complications during the delivery process that disrupts oxygen supply can increase a baby’s chances of developing cerebral palsy.  In the past, birth complications were believed to be the only cause of cerebral palsy, but as science progressed, numerous other factors were discovered.
Birth complication risk factors include:
- Low birth weight
- Infertility treatments
- Medical conditions of the mother such as thyroid problems or seizures
- Not having enough oxygen during the delivery process
- Abnormal delivery position, such as the breech position
- Placental problems, including the placenta detaching too early
- Improper use of forceps and other birth-assisted tools during delivery
- Membranes rupturing too early
Risk Factor # 2: Infections
Certain maternal and fetal infections can heighten the risk of an infant developing cerebral palsy, especially if not treated in a timely manner. The most common infections that increase the risk include:
- Sexually transmitted diseases, such as herpes and syphilis
- High fever
- Bacterial infections
Risk Factor #3: Blood type and Rh Incompatibility
Blood type and Rh incompatibility occur when the mother’s blood type is different from her infant’s and is not compatible.  For example, a mother with Type O blood may be incompatible with a child with Type A, B, or AB blood.
This can lead to jaundice or a yellowing of the skin that occurs when a substance called bilirubin builds up. This can eventually lead to a condition called kernicterus that may lead to brain cerebral palsy if it not treated.
Red blood cells can then break down leading to elevated levels of bilirubin when there is an ABO incompatibility.
Rh incompatibility occurs when a mother is Rh-negative and the newborn is Rh-positive. The mother makes antibodies that attack the newborn’s red blood cells and can lead to other problems besides jaundice. Rh incompatibility is preventable with a special treatment called RhoGAM that the mother receives at 28 weeks of gestation.
Rh or blood incompatibility doesn’t always mean that a baby will develop cerebral palsy, but it’s a risk factor and, therefore, a blood compatibility test should be carried out during early pregnancy or after childbirth if your baby develops jaundice.
Risk Factor #4 Multiple Births
Carrying twins or multiples has been linked to a higher chance of infants developing cerebral palsy due to numerous complications that have the tendency to surface when carrying more than one infant, including:
- Premature delivery
- Low birth weight
- Breech birth position
Risk Factor #5 Fetal Growth Restriction
Fetal growth restriction, also known as intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR), occurs when a baby falls below the 2.5 percentile when compared with other infants the same age. IUGR can occur due to numerous reasons , including:
- Maternal heart disease
- Maternal alcohol and illegal substance use
- Placenta issues
- Inadequate nutrition
- Smoking during pregnancy
In addition to a heightened risk of developing cerebral palsy, IUGR is one of the leading causes of perinatal death.
Risk Factors Are Not Symptoms Or Causes of Cerebral Palsy
It’s important to understand that risk factors are not signs or symptoms of cerebral palsy. For example, a baby born prematurely isn’t a symptom of the disorder like spastic movements are. Risk factors are simply factors that may be associated with cerebral palsy.
The more risk factors a baby has the greater their chances of developing cerebral palsy. However, not every baby that develops cerebral palsy has many or all risk factors. Some risk factors like prematurity appear to be more important than others.
Furthermore, risk factors are also not causes of cerebral palsy. For instance, cerebral palsy can be caused by brain damage, but a difficult delivery and oxygen loss during delivery are risk factors that can lead to brain damage.
How to Avoid Risk Factors
In most cases, cerebral palsy is multifactorial with multiple risk factors present. Most mothers take every step possible to ensure a healthy pregnancy by avoiding modifiable risk factors such as smoking, alcohol, obesity, and infections.
However, not all risks are avoidable. Physicians can make legitimate mistakes and sometimes there is negligence. There are different things to keep in mind that will help you avoid risk factors, which include:
- Always keep prenatal appointments, and be certain to ask your doctor about any potential risk factors he/she may notice during routine exams.
- Don’t drink alcohol, take illegal drugs or smoke during pregnancy.
- Avoid exposure to known toxins
- Ask for a blood compatibility test to be performed as early as possible during pregnancy.
- Avoid harmful household products
Cerebral Palsy Risk Factors Facts and Statistics
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
- Infants are a great risk of developing brain damage via risk factors when compared to older children.
- Multiples are five times more likely to develop cerebral palsy when compared to single babies.
- Babies born via in vitro fertilization are 1.6 times more likely to develop cerebral palsy, typically because babies born with this method tend to have lower birth weight and/or born as multiples.
- Causes and Risk Factors of Cerebral Palsy. (2019, September 23). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/cp/causes.html
- The role of the Rh factor in the etiology of cerebral palsy. (2001). The Journal of Pediatrics, 138(5), 758.
Retrieved from: https://doi.org/10.1067/mpd.2001.114717
- Kuehn, B. M. (2013). Fetal Growth Restriction, Inflammation Linked to Cerebral Palsy. JAMA, 310(16), 1666.
Retrieved from: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/1758729