Cerebral palsy (CP) generally develops in a child either during the mother’s pregnancy, during the birth, or shortly thereafter, so expecting parents or those interested in starting a family may be looking to learn more about this particular condition. Specifically, many wonder what they can do to prevent CP from developing in their baby.
Can You Prevent Cerebral Palsy?
Unfortunately, there is nothing you can do to guarantee with 100 percent certainty that your child will not develop cerebral palsy.
This is partially because the actual cause of CP remains largely unknown, especially in cases of congenital CP, which develops either during pregnancy or during the birthing process.
That being said, there are a number of things you can do to reduce the likelihood that your baby will develop CP. And this begins before the actual pregnancy.
Pre-Pregnancy CP Prevention
While its cause is relatively unknown, several of the risk factors associated with CP development are related to the expecting mother.
This is good news because with a little bit of planning and self-care, many of these risks can be reduced simply by taking these types of pre-pregnancy actions:
- Look after your own health. Some research suggests that various aspects of the mother’s health can potentially raise the risk of CP. For instance, studies have found that thyroid issues could be a cause for concern, as well as mothers who have seizures. Thus, before even getting pregnant, look after your own health and keep your own medical issues under control. This gives your baby a better chance of being born without CP.
- Get and stay current on your vaccinations. To help reduce your risk of contracting a virus that could potentially increase your inflammation to the point where it ultimately damages your baby’s brain, check your vaccination records and make sure they’re up to date. If not, be sure to get them and any others your doctor recommends prior to trying to get pregnant.
CP Prevention During Pregnancy
Once you’re expecting, there are many things you can do to lower your baby’s risk of developing CP. These include:
- Lower your risk of multiple births. Granted, sometimes multiple birth situations happen naturally, but they are also often a consequence of infertility treatments. Because having twins, triplets, or other types of multiple births increases a child’s risk of CP, if you do have infertility treatments, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends “transferring only one embryo at a time.”
- Stay away from individuals who are struggling with an infection. One of the pregnancy-related risk factors of CP is maternal infections and fever. If you can avoid sick individuals when expecting—such as those with chickenpox, German measles, or the Zika virus—you could potentially prevent the development of CP in your unborn fetus.
- Have someone else change the kitty litter. Some cats carry parasites in their feces that, when it comes in contact with an expecting mother, can result in an infection called toxoplasmosis that increases the risk of CP. So at least while pregnant, have someone else clean the kitty litter box.
- Watch methylmercury levels in the fish and shellfish you consume. Research has found that exposure to toxins like methylmercury may contribute to the development of CP. The Environmental Protection Agency explains that this particular toxin can be found primarily in fish and shellfish, so check these items before buying them to ensure that they’re safe to eat. One study found that levels of methylmercury may be higher in the Great Lakes region, so be aware that your geographical location may place you at greater risk.
- Limit your alcohol consumption. Doctors often give mixed advice in this area, with some medical professionals warning expecting mothers to not drink at all and others stating that one drink every now and then shouldn’t hurt the growing baby. Whichever piece of advice your doctor provides, it’s important to know that research has linked “heavy maternal alcohol consumption” to increased risk of CP. If you do choose to consume alcohol during pregnancy, limiting your consumption can also reduce your baby’s risk of this disease.
- Get an Rh factor blood test. Sometimes CP is caused by what is called Rh incompatibility. This occurs when the mother has a different Rh blood type (positive or negative) than the growing baby, causing the mother’s body to attack the baby’s cells. Fortunately, you can get an Rh factor test to determine whether or not your blood cells carry the Rh factor protein, thus giving you some treatment options. Mayo Clinic says this test is especially important if the mother is Rh negative and the father is Rh positive.
- Attend all of your doctor’s appointments. It’s easy to be extremely busy before having a baby considering you have a room to prepare and you’re gathering everything you need prior to leaving for the hospital. However, attending all of your doctor’s appointments is just as important because it can help ensure that your unborn baby’s health progress is still on track. These appointments are also great times to voice any concerns you may have about your child’s development.
- Listen to your doctor’s advice. During some pregnancies, doctors suggest bedrest or that you take other precautionary actions to help increase the odds that you’ll carry the baby full-term. Low birth weight and premature birth are two potential risk factors of CP, so heeding this advice can help reduce the likelihood that either of these situations—and CP—will exist.
Reducing CP Risk During the Birthing Process
When your child is ready to enter this world, it can be both an exciting and scary time, particularly if this is your first.
However, if your goal is to reduce your child’s risk of CP, there are a few actions you can take during this moment that can potentially help:
- Relax as much as possible. The more stressed you are during the birth, the more stress you’re placing on the baby. Therefore, try to stay as calm as you possibly can during the birthing process. You can reduce stress during birth by thinking of things that make you happy, having someone massage your tummy or back, and listening to soothing music.
- Ask questions if you’re concerned. If anything happens during the birthing process that causes you concern, don’t be afraid to talk to the doctors and nursing staff. For instance, if you’re hooked up to a monitor for your baby’s heart rate and it alarms, but no medical professionals immediately respond, call them yourself to bring it to their attention so they can address it immediately.
Post-Birth CP Prevention
Once your baby is born, there are quite a few things you can do to help reduce his or her risk of CP. These include:
- Monitor the baby for jaundice. Jaundice is typically recognized by yellowing of the baby’s skin or the whites of the eyes, and isn’t always a direct cause of CP. However, if left untreated or a severe case, it can lead into a condition called kernicterus, which is believed to be a cause directly related to cerebral palsy. If your baby appears to have these symptoms, seek medical attention.
- Watch your diet if breastfeeding. Though we’ve already discussed the fact that methylmercury exposure can be raise the risk of CP during pregnancy, if you breastfeed your newborn, concerns about this exposure still exist. Monitor your fish and shellfish consumption, and only eat options low in this particular mineral.
- Be mindful of your baby’s injury risks. CP that develops after birth, known as acquired CP, is often caused by an injury to the baby’s head. Be mindful of risks that exist in your own home environment so you can better avoid them. This involves never leaving the baby unattended on a couch or bed, softening play surfaces, removing yourself from situations where the infant could potentially be abused, and using proper child safety seats when travelling.
- Get your child vaccinated. Brain-based infections like meningitis and encephalitis put your baby at greater risk of developing CP, so immunizing against these types of conditions can help lower that risk. Two vaccines recommended by the CDC include the HiB vaccine (Haemophilus influenzae) and a pneumococcal vaccine (Streptococcus pneumoniae).
Although you can’t prevent cerebral palsy 100 percent, there are many things you can do to lower your child’s risk.