How Do I Know If My Child Has Cerebral Palsy?

Clinically Identifiable Effects from Brain Injury or Brain Malformation

Signs of cerebral palsy are different than symptoms of cerebral palsy.

Signs are clinically identifiable effects of brain injury or malformation that cause cerebral palsy. A doctor will discern signs of a health concern during exam and testing.

Symptoms, on the other hand, are effects the child feels or expresses; symptoms are not necessarily visible.

Impairments resulting from cerebral palsy range in severity, usually in correlation with the degree of injury to the brain. Because cerebral palsy is a group of conditions, signs and symptoms vary from one individual to the next.

The primary effect of cerebral palsy is impairment of muscle tone, gross and fine motor functions, balance, control, reflexes, and posture. Oral motor dysfunction, such as swallowing and feeding difficulties, speech impairment, and poor muscle tone in the face, can also indicate cerebral palsy. Associative conditions, such as sensory impairment, seizures, and learning disabilities that are not a result of the same brain injury, occur frequently with cerebral palsy. When present, these associative conditions may contribute to a clinical diagnosis of cerebral palsy.

The most common early sign of cerebral palsy is developmental delay. Delay in reaching key growth milestones, such as rolling over, sitting, crawling and walking are cause for concern. Practitioners will also look for signs such as abnormal muscle tone, unusual posture, persistent infant reflexes, and early development of hand preference.

Many signs and symptoms are not readily visible at birth, except in some severe cases, and may appear within the first three to five years of life as the brain and child develop.

If the delivery was traumatic, or if significant risk factors were encountered during pregnancy or birth, doctors may suspect cerebral palsy immediately and observe the child carefully. In moderate to mild cases of cerebral palsy, parents are often first to notice if the child doesn’t appear to be developing on schedule. If parents do begin to suspect cerebral palsy, they will likely want to consult their physician and ask about testing to begin ruling out or confirming cerebral palsy or other conditions.

Most experts agree; the earlier a cerebral palsy diagnosis can be made, the better. However, some caution against making a diagnosis too early, and warn that other conditions need to be ruled out first. Because cerebral palsy is the result of brain injury, and because the brain continues to develop during the first years of life, early tests may not detect the condition. Later, however, the same test may, in fact, reveal the issue.

If a diagnosis can be made early on, early intervention programs and treatment protocols have shown benefit in management of cerebral palsy. Early diagnosis also helps families qualify for government benefit programs and early intervention.

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Signs of Development Delay


Eight Clinical Signs of Cerebral Palsy

Since cerebral palsy is most often diagnosed in the first several years of life, when a child is too young to effectively communicate his or her symptoms, signs are the primary method of recognizing the likelihood of cerebral palsy.

Cerebral palsy is a neurological condition which primarily causes orthopedic impairment. Cerebral palsy is caused by a brain injury or brain abnormality that interferes with the brain cells responsible for controlling muscle tone, strength, and coordination. As a child grows, these changes affect skeletal and joint development, which may lead to impairment and possibly deformities. The eight clinical signs of cerebral palsy involve:

In some instances, signs become more apparent when the child experiences developmental delay or fails to meet established developmental milestones.


Difference Between Signs and Symptoms

Signs can be clinically substantiated; symptoms are subjective to an individual’s personal experience. Signs are indicators of disease, disability or impairment detected through evaluation or testing administered by a medical professional. Symptoms, however, are feelings experienced, perceived or expressed by the child as a result of a condition.

When diagnosing cerebral palsy, parents and doctors are typically looking at signs, especially in infants and toddlers, who do not have the capability yet to explain symptoms they are experiencing.


Signs are detected through medical evaluation, clinical tests, and practitioner observance. Although a parent may see signs of cerebral palsy when the child shows motor development delay, a doctor must rule out other conditions and formally diagnose the impairment. The physician will also determine the extent, location and severity level of impairment, along with associative conditions or co-mitigating factors. Signs may vary by individual, depending on the brain injury or malformation and severity level. Examples of signs of cerebral palsy include:

  • Not blinking at loud noises by one month
  • Not sitting by seven months
  • Not turning head toward sounds by four months
  • Not verbalizing words by 12 months
  • Seizures
  • Walking with an abnormal gait


Symptoms are the effects of impairment an individual experiences. The child perceives and notices the symptoms, which are not necessarily visible to others. At such a young age, a child is limited in his or her ability to express symptoms and often relies on the careful observation of parents.

Symptoms, relayed to the medical practitioner, assists in the diagnosis process. Some symptoms of cerebral palsy include:

  • Choking
  • Difficulty grasping objects
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Fatigue
  • Inability to focus on objects
  • Inability to hear
  • Pain