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Cerebral palsy can be diagnosed shortly after birth, but sometimes it isn’t diagnosed until children reach around one to three years of age. Cerebral palsy in toddlers most commonly causes involuntary muscle control and limp or tight joints. Early diagnosis and treatments, like therapy and medications, are essential for the best prognosis.
Cerebral Palsy in Toddlers
Cerebral palsy diagnosed during toddlerhood doesn’t necessarily mean that doctors missed symptoms while a child was an infant. It typically means that the child has a mild form of cerebral palsy, and the symptoms aren’t as significant until the child becomes a toddler.
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In some cerebral palsy cases, the U.S. National Institutes of Health reports that children in high-income countries are diagnosed with cerebral palsy between 12 to 24 months of age. Children in lower-income countries may not get diagnosed until five years of age.
Symptoms of Cerebral Palsy in Toddlers
Whereas some babies are diagnosed with cerebral palsy at birth or the first six months of life due to apparent signs, toddlers with cerebral palsy are often diagnosed when they enter the walking stage.
Children with mild cerebral palsy may exhibit signs of difficulty controlling movement as they try to walk, marked by a limp or tightness in the joints. They could also have problems controlling the muscles in their hands and feet.
Along with physical symptoms, mild cerebral palsy can also cause cognitive issues. Not all children will experience these types of problems, but those who do may lack vocabulary words that most children their age know and may have difficulties in learning.
The good news is that cerebral palsy is not progressive, meaning it does not worsen over time. Further, children with mild cerebral palsy can generally learn to walk unassisted and typically take care of daily tasks, such as eating independently and getting dressed.
Early Diagnosis and Cerebral Palsy in Toddlers
If your child was diagnosed with cerebral palsy during infancy, your toddler’s daily activities and symptoms would depend on the type of cerebral palsy they have, along with the severity.
Toddlers with severe cerebral palsy will typically not be able to walk and will need to, at some point, use a wheelchair or other assistive device for movement.
Learning skills could also be affected and usually manifest around the time the child is a toddler. While a toddler with mild cerebral palsy may communicate, toddlers with severe cerebral palsy may not.
Toddlers with severe cerebral palsy are more likely to have feeding issues. Around 30% are malnourished, which can lead to growth development issues.
How to Know if Your Toddler has Cerebral Palsy
Assuming that your child was not already diagnosed with cerebral palsy, there are common signs called developmental milestones that can help you determine if your child may have the disorder. Keep in mind that only a physician, however, can officially diagnose your child.
Milestones by Age One
- Responds to and acknowledges simple requests
- Can wave and point
- Shakes and bangs things
- Copies gestures
- Can drink from a cup
- Sits without help
- Repeats sounds
- May be able to stand alone and take a few steps
- Walks while holding onto furniture
- Tries to emulate words, can say simple words such as “mama” or “dada.”
Milestones by 18 Months
- Can scribble
- Points to body parts
- Can say several words and shake head
- Eats with a soon and drinks from a cup
- Can walk and carry toys
- Undresses without assistance
- May cling to caregivers during social interactions with others
- Plays “pretend” (feeding a doll, putting stuffed animals down for a nap, etc.)
- Possible temper tantrums
- Can say simple phrases
Milestones by Age Two
- Learns how to run and can stand on tiptoes
- Can kick a ball
- Can walk up and down stairs without assistance
- Can follow simple instructions
- Copies others, such as phrases and mannerisms
- Begins to play with other children (primarily beside them but could engage in a game of “chase”)
- Finds hidden objects
- Can sort shapes and colors
- Can name items in a book (dog, cat, house, etc.)
- Knows body parts and familiar names
- Can say several sentences
Milestones By Age Three
- Can climb and run with ease
- May learn to pedal a tricycle
- Can turn door handles and jar lids
- Understands and plays “make-believe”
- Can turn book pages
- Shows concern and emotions
- Shows affection to family, friends
- Can name familiar items
- Knows first name, sex, and age
- Following two to three-step instructions
Managing Symptoms and Daily Living for Toddlers with Cerebral Palsy
Regardless of whether your child has mild or severe cerebral palsy, it’s important to work with your child’s pediatrician to develop a solid plan to help manage the disorder.
It’s not uncommon for a toddler with cerebral palsy to have a team of healthcare providers to help your toddler with nutrition, physical therapy, medication, occupational therapy, and education.
At home, you should keep communication open with your child’s healthcare team, who will provide daily exercises that work on the toddler’s cognitive and physical development.
- Early diagnosis and classification of cerebral palsy: An historical perspective and barriers to an early diagnosis. (2019, October 8). PubMed Central (PMC). U.S. National Institutes of Health.
Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6832653/
- Cerebral palsy: Comprehensive review and update. (2006, March 26). PubMed Central (PMC). U.S. National Institutes of Health.
Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6074141/
- What is a developmental milestone? (2020, July 8). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/actearly/milestones/index.html