Is Cerebral Palsy Caused at Birth?

Causes of Cerebral Palsy, Cerebral Palsy Diagnosis

newborn's hand nestled in parent's hands, holding white card that reads CP? in bold orange type

A vast majority of cerebral palsy cases will occur before birth, while a baby is still in the womb. In fact, some organizations show that this number might be as high as 70%. When cerebral palsy is caused in the womb or during childbirth, it’s called “congenital” cerebral palsy.

A much smaller portion of cerebral palsy cases are caused by some form of trauma or brain damage that happens during the birthing process. This could be caused by medical malpractice, accidents, asphyxiation, or health issues in the mother.

How Is Cerebral Palsy Caused at Birth?

Most cases of cerebral palsy caused during labor result from some form of brain damage. That might include a lack of oxygen to the unborn child’s brain, physical trauma to the head, or severe illness in the expectant mother. Different types of cerebral palsy are caused by different traumatic events.


Asphyxiation occurs when the flow of oxygen in and out of the body is cut off. This lowers the concentration of oxygen in the blood, depriving the brain of the oxygen it needs to continue growing and functioning. Just how often birth asphyxia occurs in instances of cerebral palsy is unclear, though this number might be as high as 50%.

Asphyxiation during childbirth can be caused by a multitude of factors. In some cases, low blood pressure in the mother might limit the amount of oxygen in the blood that’s being delivered to the fetus. Low blood pressure can be caused by anesthesia administered during childbirth or may occur naturally.

Sometimes, asphyxiation will occur if the umbilical cord becomes pinched during labor, cutting off the oxygen supply to the placenta until the baby is delivered. Rarely, the umbilical cord might become wrapped around the neck of the child during labor. That’s exactly why time is of the essence during labor and delivery.

Prolonged Labor

Most deliveries will be completed smoothly in 24 hours or less. In cases where delivery takes longer than 24 hours, which can occur in up to 8% of deliveries, the risk of the unborn baby developing brain damage is slightly increased.

The longer labor lasts, the more stress put on the mother and unborn child. This can greatly reduce the amount of oxygen that’s traveling to the unborn baby, reducing the amount of blood flow and oxygen to the brain.

Exactly what causes prolonged labor will vary on a case-by-case basis. In some cases, the mother’s uterus doesn’t contract properly, making natural childbirth significantly more difficult. Sometimes, the baby may be in an unusual position (head up, or sideways). A C-section may be necessary to rescue the baby and lower the risk of cerebral palsy.

Medical Malpractice

In some circumstances, cerebral palsy that occurs during childbirth is a result of medical malpractice or negligence. This will happen when the actions or inaction of a doctor or nurse causes the situation that results in infant brain damage.

For example, healthcare workers may misinterpret or simply ignore warning signs from the fetal monitor.

Health Issues in the Mother

Since the fetus is completely dependent on the blood flow, oxygen, and nutrients coming through the umbilical cord, the baby’s health is also entirely dependent on its mother’s health. One of the more common causes of brain damage during birth is preeclampsia in the mother.

Preeclampsia is a condition associated with high blood pressure during pregnancy and childbirth, usually with a blood pressure of 140/90 or higher. This seems to occur in up to 8% of deliveries. When labor begins unexpectedly, higher blood pressure might result and cause severe health issues if medical intervention and a C-section are delayed.

In some cases, a mother may have seizures, a stroke, bleeding in the brain, or enter a coma while delivering a child. The longer it takes to deliver the baby, the more likely the baby is being deprived of oxygen and blood flow to its brain. This can cause cerebral palsy and, in severe cases, death.

A significant portion of cerebral palsy cases occur as a result of trauma during the delivery process. In some cases, cerebral palsy may have been prevented with proper medical care. If you think your loved one’s cerebral palsy could be due to medical malpractice, contact the Cerebral Palsy Family Lawyers Janet, Janet & Suggs today to learn your options for seeking justice.



Claire Surles, RN
Reviewed by:
Claire Surles, RN
Registered Nurse

Claire comes to JJS after a 10-year career as a labor and delivery nurse. She dedicated her hospital efforts to advocating for families, providing the safest birthing environment possible as Newborn Admission Nurse at UMMC St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson, Maryland. Her passion for helping those who experienced losses at any stage of gestation led to her appointment as Coordinator of the hospital’s ROOTS perinatal loss program. READ FULL BIO

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