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by Antonella Dési
Cerebral Palsy - BabyYumYum
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Cerebral palsy affects millions of children globally, and the numbers are comparatively high in South Africa. We explore it prevalence, causes, and the transformative journey families embark on when their child is diagnosed with this condition.By Antonella Dési

Cerebral Palsy (CP) is a complex neurological disorder that affects movement, muscle tone, and motor skills. It is the most common motor disability in childhood, impacting a child’s ability to perform daily activities and achieve developmental milestones. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines CP as “a group of disorders that affect a person’s ability to move and maintain balance and posture.”

The condition originates from damage to the developing brain, occurring either before or during birth, or within the first few years of life. The severity and types of symptoms vary, but they often manifest as muscle stiffness, poor coordination, and involuntary movements.

According to the CDC, many children with CP have one or more additional conditions or diseases along with their CP, known as co-occurring conditions: “For example, about 4 in 10 children with CP also have epilepsy, and about 1 in 10 have autism spectrum disorder.”

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According the Cerebral Palsy Alliance, CP is one of the most common lifelong physical disabilities worldwide, affecting approximately 18-million people of all ages globally. The prevalence of cerebral palsy varies by region and country. According to the CDC, recent population-based studies from around the world report prevalence estimates of CP in children internationally ranging from 1 to 4 per 1,000 live births.

In South Africa, the exact number of children with CP is challenging to determine due to factors such as a shortage of up-to-date research, lack of reporting, and limited access to healthcare in certain areas. However, the Western Cape Government estimates that the figures in South Africa are much higher than global statistics – estimating that around 10 babies out of every 1,000 births will be diagnosed with CP.

This is because in high-income countries, advances in medical care, prenatal screening, and neonatal care have contributed to better outcomes for at-risk pregnancies, resulting in a lower prevalence of CP. In contrast, developing countries face challenges in providing adequate healthcare, particularly in rural areas, leading to a higher burden of CP.


Cerebral palsy is not attributed to a single cause, but rather a combination of factors. These include:

  • Prenatal factors: Certain maternal infections, exposure to toxins, and inadequate prenatal care can contribute to brain damage in the developing foetus.
  • Perinatal factors: Oxygen deprivation during labour and delivery, premature birth, and complications during delivery can lead to brain injury.
  • Postnatal factors: Infections, traumatic brain injuries, and untreated jaundice in the new-born period can result in CP.
  • Genetic factors: Some genetic mutations increase the risk of brain abnormalities, which in turn can lead to CP.
  • Pregnancy complications: Preterm birth, low birth weight, and other pregnancy-related complications can increase the likelihood of CP.
  • Multiple births: Twins, triplets, or other multiples have a higher risk due to the increased likelihood of complications during pregnancy or delivery.

Tips for dealing with a Cerebral palsy diagnosisPrevention

While there’s no fool proof method for ensuring a perfect outcome, certain steps can diminish risks of CP during pregnancy. The Cerebral Palsy Guide recommends the following steps to help lower the chances of CP during pregnancy:

  • Avoid infections: Steer clear of infections or viruses that can impact foetal health, such as German Measles, Cytomegalovirus, or Zika. Being cautious around potential sources of infection is essential.
  • Vaccinations: Ensuring you’re appropriately vaccinated can contribute to protecting both you and your baby from potential infections that could affect development.
  • Health management: Keep underlying health issues under control through proper medical guidance, such as blood pressure and diabetes and so on.
  • Healthy lifestyle choices: Stay away from alcohol, cigarettes, recreational drugs, and prescription medications known to pose risks during pregnancy. Rather opt for a wholesome lifestyle to provide the best environment for your baby’s growth.
  • Rh Incompatibility: Detect and address any potential Rh incompatibility between you and your baby early on. Medical interventions can effectively help manage this condition.

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Tips for dealing with a CP diagnosis

Receiving a CP diagnosis for your child can evoke overwhelming emotions. Navigating this new reality effectively can greatly benefit your child’s future. Seek counselling and community for confidence and hope. Remember, you’re not alone! The Cerebral Palsy Guide offers the following tips for parents post-CP diagnosis:

  • Educate your family: Help them understand CP’s implications, providing resources to foster understanding and support.
  • Explore therapy options: Immediate and ongoing therapies, including occupational, physical, and speech therapy, are essential for your child’s mobility and well-being.
  • Connect with CP specialists: Collaborate with specialists for tailored care and stay informed about emerging treatments and devices, including geneticists, neurologists, paediatricians, as well as physical and occupational therapists.
  • Embrace abilities: Encourage your child to reach for realistic goals despite limitations, fostering a can-do attitude.
  • Communicate and advocate: Stay connected with family, educators, and doctors. Provide a supportive environment for your child to express needs and be an advocate.

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We’ve compiled a list of some support groups that can help navigate parents through a CP diagnosis:

Aware Bears
Cerebral Palsy South Africa – Parent Support Group
KZN Cerebral Palsy Association
Malamulele Onward
National Association for people with Cerebral Palsy
United Cerebral Palsy Association of South Africa
Western Cape Cerebral Palsy Association

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