Cerebral Palsy - What causes cerebral palsy?

Cerebral palsy can result from two types of brain damage. The first type is when the brain develops improperly (developmental brain malformation). Causes of these malformations are frequently unknown, but can include genetic disorders, chromosome abnormalities, or faulty blood supply to the brain.  Developmental brain malformations in the areas of the brain which control voluntary movement may cause cerebral palsy.

The second and more frequent type is when illness or injury damages a brain (neurological damage) that was otherwise developing normally. In many cases the neurological causes of cerebral palsy will never be known. There are some factors however, that can be identified during or around the time of birth, that can damage the important motor areas in the developing brain which control the way muscles in the body move.  Some of these factors that may cause cerebral palsy include:

  • Trauma or injury caused by a difficult labor and delivery.  The birthing process can be traumatic for an infant, and injuries during birth sometimes cause cerebral palsy. When a pregnant woman has difficulties giving birth, an obstetrician may assist by using forceps or a vacuum extractor to help pull the baby out of the birth canal. Improper use of the forceps may cause injury to the newborn's head or brain. Additionally, a breech delivery may deprive the baby of oxygen, which in turn can increase the possibility of brain damage.
  • Infections during pregnancy can cause cerebral palsy. This can be passed on by the mother to the fetus, damaging the fetus's nervous system.
  • Jaundice in the infant can cause cerebral palsy. Bile pigments, which are normally found in small amounts in the blood stream, are produced in the body when blood cells are destroyed.  But when too many blood cells are destroyed too quickly, the yellow-colored bile pigments can build up and cause a condition called jaundice. If left untreated, severe jaundice can damage brain cells.
  • Rh incompatibility can cause cerebral palsy. This is a blood condition where the mother's body produces immune cells, called antibodies, that destroy the fetus's blood cells. This often leads to a form of jaundice in the newborn.
  • Severe oxygen shortage in the brain can cause cerebral palsy. A lack of oxygen caused by problems in breathing or a poor oxygen supply sometimes happens to babies during childbirth.  If the supply of oxygen to the infant's brain is insufficient for too long a time, the baby may develop brain damage.
  • Stroke can cause cerebral palsy. A stroke happens when there is bleeding in the brain.  Bleeding in the brain has several causes, including broken or clogged blood vessels in the brain, or abnormal blood cells.  A stoke in the fetus during pregnancy, or in the newborn around the time of birth, can damage brain tissue.

Medical mistakes can also cause cerebral palsy. 

Medical mistakes are responsible for many cerebral palsy cases. If a doctor or other health care professional fails to monitor or to respond properly to certain situations that arise during the delivery, that individual could be considered negligent with regard to the duty owed to patients.  A delivery medical team should monitor the mother and baby throughout labor and delivery in order to be aware of any complications that may develop. Negligence of doctors, nurses,  ( See "Nursing Negligence" by birth injury lawyers Kathleen Flynn Peterson and Genevieve M. Zimmerman) and other medical personnel can lead to situations which may result in cerebral palsy.  Examples of such negligence include:

  • Failure to provide appropriate prenatal care and appropriate interventions during labor and delivery
  • Failure to diagnose and treat an infection in the mother
  • Failing to rapidly diagnose and treat preterm labor
  • Failure to diagnose macrosomic (large) baby
  • Failure to properly manage prolonged or post-term pregnancy
  • Failing to respond appropriately to bleeding
  • Failure to treat maternal elevated blood pressure (preeclampsia)
  • A negligent management of labor and delivery
  • Failure to appropriately respond and intervene to non-reassuring fetal heart monitor changes and evidence of fetal distress.
  • Misuse of a vacuum extractor or forceps during delivery
  • Failure to perform a timely vaginal delivery or cesarean section (c-section) to remove a baby in distress
  • Failure to properly resuscitate newborn

Only a careful review of the medical records can support a likely cause of injuries and whether the actions of the delivery team played a part in causing your child's cerebral palsy. Our lawyers and medical advisors who handle birth injury cases have experience investigating medical mistakes and birth injury malpractice and have access to the type of qualified medical experts necessary to review complicated birth injury cases.

If your child suffered a birth injury resulting in cerebral palsy due to improper care during your pregnancy or at the time of delivery, perhaps we can help. Contact one of our medical advisors - all professionally licensed - they understand the complex issues of labor and delivery that can result in medical conditions like cerebral palsy. Please call our Medical Malpractice group which handles birth injuries that result in cerebral palsy at 1.800.552.7115 or contact us. If you think you have a medical malpractice case within MN, ND, SD, IA or WI, please call 1.800.207.6771.


Geralis, Elaine, (1998) Children with Cerebral Palsy: A Parent's Guide, Woodbine House, Inc., 1991.

Miller, Freeman, M.D., Bachrach, Steven, M.D., Cerebral Palsy: A Complete Guide for Caregiving, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London, 2005

Pincus, Dion, Everything You Need to Know About Cerebral Palsy, Rosen Publishing Group, Inc. New York, 2000. 

Pellegrino, Louis. Cerebral Palsy, in Batshaw, M.L. (ed.), Children With Disabilities, Fourth Edition, Baltimore, MD, Paul H. Brooks Publishing Company, 1997, pages 499-528.

Stanley, Fiona, Blair, Eve, Alberman, Eva. (2000) Cerebral Palsies: Epidemiology & Causal Pathways. Mac Keith Press

Gillette Children's Specialty Healthcare

Origins of Cerebral Palsy,

United Cerebral Palsy. The Treatment of Cerebral Palsy. Research Status Report, 6/03.

United Cerebral Palsy. Cerebral Palsy-Facts and Figures. 1-30-04

Robins Kaplan LLP Lawyers Handling Cerebral Palsy and other Birth Injury Cases

The articles on our Website include some of the publications and papers authored by our attorneys, both before and after they joined our firm. The content of these articles should not be taken as legal advice.