Cerebral Palsy Risk Factors

Fact-Checked and Medically Reviewed by:
Katie Lavender, RN Registered Nurse
Quick Answer

Cerebral palsy can be caused by a variety of factors, including physical injury, bacterial or viral infection or poor maternal nutrition during pregnancy. It is primarily associated with damage to the brain that impedes normal development. Cerebral palsy can also be caused by doctors who use excessive force during delivery that leads to brain damage.

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Cerebral Palsy Risk Factors Explained

Cerebral palsy is typically caused by complications in the brain development of prenatal children. Medical professionals often cannot identify the exact cause in individual patients. However, there is a medical consensus on risk factors that increase the odds of cerebral palsy in babies.

Certain conditions, illnesses, and external factors can increase the risk of cerebral palsy in unborn or newborn children. For example, head injuries and low levels of oxygen in the brain increase the risk of cerebral palsy. Women from low-income communities with decreased access to proper medical care tend to have a higher risk of their children developing cerebral palsy.

Cerebral palsy risk factors include:

  • Low levels of oxygen in the brain (hypoxia)
  • Being born prematurely
  • Bleeding in the brain
  • Brain infections
  • Head injuries
  • Infections in the mother during pregnancy
  • Severe jaundice

Types of Risk Factors

The medical community separates cerebral palsy risk factors into different groups. These groups include maternal health, infant health, socioeconomic status and other factors.

Maternal Health

If the mother suffers from certain medical conditions during her pregnancy, her child could be at higher risk of cerebral palsy. These risk factors include viral and bacterial infections such as chickenpox, herpes, and Zika virus, as well as genetic factors such as thyroid conditions. Poor maternal nutrition can also deprive the child of the oxygen and nutrition necessary for proper brain development.

Infant Health

Infants suffering from illnesses that directly affect brain development can have an increased risk of developing cerebral palsy. These risk factors include bacterial meningitis, viral encephalitis, and jaundice.

Socioeconomic Status

Children born to individuals facing socioeconomic hardships, including those from low-income backgrounds, may have a higher risk of developing cerebral palsy.

Challenges such as limited access to prenatal care, transportation difficulties, and childcare needs can affect various families. Poor nutrition can further increase health risks for the infant. In some cases, these families might also encounter health care settings with limited resources, where complications can be overlooked.

Language and communication barriers can pose significant challenges, potentially leading to critical information being missed during delivery and affecting the outcome.

Additional Factors

Several additional factors are associated with an increased risk of cerebral palsy. These risk factors include physical injury during birth and adverse effects of maternal medication.

Risk Factors During Labor and Delivery

Cerebral palsy can be caused by physical injury during delivery. While genetic risks associated with cerebral palsy often cannot be changed, the physical injuries that can cause cerebral palsy can be avoided. These risks include fetal distress, physical trauma to the head, brain, or nerves, and a difficult or long labor.

Complications that Increase the Risk of Cerebral Palsy

  • Misuse of medical tools: The misuse of tools such as forceps or vacuum extractors can increase the risk of a birth injury. These tools can damage the child’s brain or skull if used with excessive force.
  • Uterine rupture: If the mother’s uterus tears during delivery, the bleeding leading to a lack of blood distributed to the newborn can cause a lack of oxygen and brain damage for the child.
  • Abnormal heart rate: If medical professionals fail to monitor the child’s heart rate during delivery, abnormal heart rate symptoms might be missed. An abnormal heart rate can show that a child’s brain is failing to receive enough blood.
  • Umbilical cord complications: Umbilical cord complications can significantly reduce the amount of oxygen the child receives from their mother, potentially leading to brain damage.

Risk Factors that Lead to Physical Birth Injuries

Certain populations are at greater risk for physical birth injuries during pregnancy. These external risk factors lead to a higher risk of cerebral palsy.

These risks include:  

  • Low-income communities: Low-income communities often lack easy access to medical care or receive inadequate care.
  • Poor health insurance: Poor health insurance may limit access to well-trained and experienced medical professionals.
  • Poorly trained medical staff: Poorly trained medical staff are more likely to make mistakes that can lead to physical injury.
  • Rushing during delivery: A doctor may use excessive force with tools such as forceps to speed up the delivery. This can cause physical harm and/or cerebral palsy.
  • Lack of concern for safety: Negligent hospital staff can inadvertently or directly cause physical injury.
  • Dirty hospitals: Poor hospital cleanliness can lead to the transmission of bacterial or viral infections.

Other Risk Factors

It is important to recognize the other risk factors that increase the risk of cerebral palsy.

These factors include:

  • Adverse effects of maternal medication: Medications that cause inflammation or reduce the flow of oxygen or nutrients to the fetus can impede brain development.
  • Lack of oxygen and nutrients to the fetus: A lack of oxygen and nutrients to the fetus can be caused by a number of factors, from physical injury to viral or bacterial inflammation. Lack of oxygen can cause brain damage.
  • Lack of proper prenatal care: Women who lack access to prenatal care may not identify abnormalities in their pregnancy.
  • Blood type incompatibility: There is a higher risk of the mother’s immune system refusing the child’s blood type if their blood types do not match. In this condition, the mother’s body may produce antibodies that attack the child’s blood cells. This increases the risk of brain damage.

Genetic Risk Factors

There are a number of genetic factors that come with an increased risk of cerebral palsy. Mothers with a familial history of cerebral palsy are at higher risk of having a child with the condition. The condition has “hereditary factors,” meaning that genetic influences may affect sets of genes.

Genes can also be affected by environmental factors, such as exposure to toxins or pesticides.  These cause gene mutations that affect the child’s brain. Mothers suffering from thyroid conditions are also at greater risk, as are mothers who suffer from seizures or intellectual disability.

Risk Factors During Pregnancy

There are particular risks to women during pregnancy that are associated with cerebral palsy. Poor maternal nutrition, smoking or drinking alcohol during pregnancy can reduce the oxygen and nutrients flowing to the child’s developing brain. Contaminated foods or substances can lead to bacterial or viral infections in the fetus that can inflame the brain or nervous system.

Exposure to dangerous toxins such as mercury can also increase the risk of birth defects and cerebral palsy. Domestic violence can cause physical injuries that directly damage the child’s brain and prevent regular development during pregnancy.

Women who suffer from domestic violence can also be more likely to avoid regular doctor appointments, especially after a recent physical altercation where the abuser will want her to avoid getting help. If the altercation is severe, and perhaps a fall takes place, the child’s and mother’s health could be at risk. It could result in maternal bleeding or a preterm delivery.

Maternal Infections

Maternal infections during pregnancy can cause cerebral palsy by restricting the development of the fetus’s brain. Viral or bacterial infections can reduce the oxygen or nutrients traveling to the brain. They can also cause inflammation in the brain, surrounding membranes, and the nervous system.

Types of Maternal Infections

The maternal infections associated with the development of cerebral palsy include:

  • Chickenpox: Chickenpox causes rashes, itching, and other symptoms. It can lead to pregnancy complications.
  • Herpes: Herpes infections can spread from mother to child during pregnancy. This can lead to inflammation in the child’s brain and nervous system.
  • Syphilis: Syphilis is transmitted sexually. It can cause damage to the child’s nervous system.
  • Rubella: Rubella, also known as German measles, is a viral infection that may cause birth defects.
  • Cytomegalovirus: Cytomegalovirus produces flu-like symptoms in mothers. It may cause birth defects.
  • Zika virus: Zika virus infections can cause microcephaly (small head) as well as cerebral palsy.
  • Toxoplasmosis: Toxoplasmosis is an infection caused by parasites in contaminated food. It can cause damage to the child’s brain and nervous system.

Cerebral palsy can be caused by maternal factors, infant factors, or external factors such as physical injury. Although some cases of cerebral palsy are caused by genetics and infections, others are caused by birth injuries or medical negligence. Cerebral palsy that has been caused by a birth injury may be classified as medical malpractice.

Birth Injury Support Team
Reviewed by:Katie Lavender, RN

Registered Nurse

  • Fact-Checked
  • Editor

Katie Lavender has over 8 years of experience as a Registered Nurse in postpartum mother/baby care. With hands-on experience in Labor and Delivery and a role as a Community Educator for newborn care, Katie is a staunch advocate for patient rights and education. As a Medical Reviewer, she is committed to ensuring accurate and trustworthy patient information.

The Birth Injury Justice Center was founded in 2003 by a team of legal professionals to educate and empower victims and families affected by birth injuries. Our team is devoted to providing you with the best resources and legal information for all types of birth injuries.

View Sources
  1. Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (n.d.). What causes cerebral palsy? Retrieved December 1, 2023, from https://www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/cerebral-palsy/conditioninfo/causes
  2. Mayo Clinic. (2019, August 17). Cerebral Palsy. Retrieved December 1, 2023, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/cerebral-palsy/symptoms-causes/syc-20353999
  3. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. (n.d.). Cerebral Palsy: Hope Through Research. Retrieved December 1, 2023, from https://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/patient-caregiver-education/hope-through-research/cerebral-palsy-hope-through-research