Hesperian Health Guides

How to Recognize Cerebral Palsy

Every day 20,000 people visit the HealthWiki for lifesaving health information. A gift of just $5 helps make this possible!

Make a giftMake a gift to support this essential health information people depend on.

HealthWiki > Disabled Village Children > Chapter 9: Cerebral Palsy > How to Recognize Cerebral Palsy


  • At birth a baby with cerebral palsy is often limp and floppy, or may even seem normal.
DVC Ch9 Page 87-1.png DVC Ch9 Page 87-2.png Child hangs in upside down ‘U’ with little or no movement.
  • Baby may or may not breathe right away at birth, and may turn blue and floppy. Delayed breathing is a common cause of brain damage.
  • Slow development Compared to other children in the village, the child is slow to hold up his head, to sit, or to move around.
a child unable to hold up his head
  • He may not use his hands. Or he only uses one hand and does not begin to use both.
a child plays with one hand
  • Feeding problems The baby may have difficulties with sucking, swallowing and chewing. She may choke or gag often. Even as the child gets bigger, these and other feeding problems may continue.
a child doesn't suck on the mother's breast
  • Difficulties in taking care of the baby or young child. Her body may stiffen when she is carried, dressed, or washed, or during play. Later she may not learn to feed or dress herself, to wash, use the toilet, or to play with others. This may be due to sudden stiffening of the body, or to being so floppy she ‘falls all over the place’.
a child's body stiffens as the mother changes her
The baby may be so limp that her head seems as if it will fall off. Or she may suddenly stiffen like a board, so that no one feels able to carry or hug her.
  • The baby may cry a lot and seem very fussy or ‘irritable’. Or she may be very quiet (passive) and almost never cry or smile.
  • Communication difficulties The baby may not respond or react as other babies do. This may partly be due to floppiness. stiffness, or lack of arm gestures, or control of face muscles. Also, the child may be slow in beginning to speak. Later some children develop unclear speech or other speaking difficulties.

    Although parents find it hard to know exactly what the child wants, they gradually find ways of understanding many of his needs. At first the child cries a lot to show what he wants. Later he may point with his arm, foot or eyes.
boy tries to talk to Luis
Luis! Do you want to play with Oscar? Luis!
  • Intelligence Some children may seem dull because they are so limp and slow moving. Others move so much and awkwardly they may appear stupid. Their faces twist, or they may drool because of weak face muscles or difficulty swallowing. This can make an intelligent child appear mentally slow.

    About half of the children with cerebral palsy are mentally slow, but this should not be decided too soon. The child needs to be given help and training to show what she is really like. Parents can often tell that she understands more than she can show.
child with cerebral palsy holds up three fingers
How many is 7 minus 4?
That's right! 3!
With help and training, some children who have been considered mentally slow prove to be quite intelligent.
someone bangs on a pot behind a child
Even if a child can hear loud banging, he may not hear well enough to understand words.
  • Seizures (epilepsy, fits, convulsions) occur in some children with cerebral palsy.
  • Restless behavior Sudden changes of mood from laughing to crying, fears, fits of anger, and other difficult behavior may be present. This may partly be due to the child’s frustration of not being able to do what he wants with his body. If there is too much noise and activity the child can become frightened or upset. The brain damage may also affect behavior. These children need a lot of help and patience to overcome their fears and other unusual behavior.
  • Sense of touch, pain, heat, cold, and body position are not lost. However, the children may have trouble controlling movements of their bodies and trouble with balance. Because of their damaged brains they may have difficulty learning these things. Patient teaching with lots of repetition can help.
  • Abnormal reflexes Babies have certain ‘early reflexes’ or automatic body movements that normally go away in the first weeks or months of life. In children with brain damage, they may last much longer. However, these are only important if they affect how the child moves. ‘Knee jerk’ and other tendon-jump reflexes are usually over-active (jump higher than normal). If you are not sure, testing for abnormal reflexes may help you tell cerebral palsy from polio.

This page was updated:21 Nov 2019