Premature Birth and Cerebral Palsy

Birth Injury, Causes of Cerebral Palsy

Although it does not affect every child born too early, premature birth has a clear link to a cerebral palsy diagnosis in many cases. It is important to understand risk factors, as well as potential ways to prevent both.

What Does Premature Birth Have to Do With Cerebral Palsy?

A premature birth is generally defined as one that occurs before 37 weeks of gestation, or three weeks before a baby is due. Preterm babies are those born before 32 weeks of pregnancy. Any type of premature birth can cause complications—some of which can be severe.

But does premature birth cause cerebral palsy? Several studies have concluded that being born prematurely is a major risk factor for developing cerebral palsy, particularly if the baby is born before 32 weeks of gestation. Cerebral palsy is a disorder of movement or muscle tone, often accompanied by cognitive deficiencies. About half of babies diagnosed with CP are born prematurely.

What Can Cause Premature Birth, and What Complications Can Result?

In many cases, it is not possible to pinpoint the exact cause of a premature birth. Some risk factors include previous premature birth, being pregnant with multiples, substance abuse, and a short time between pregnancies. Certain pregnancy complications can also cause premature birth, including pre-eclampsia and certain problems with the uterus or cervix. Maternal health may also play a part, with certain health conditions like diabetes or infections more likely to cause premature birth.

Not all premature babies will experience complications, but many do. Premature birth, often accompanied by low birth weight, places a baby at higher risk of death or serious disability. The CDC reports that in 2019, preterm birth and low birth weight accounted for about 17% of infant deaths. Some common complications resulting from a premature birth include:

  • Breathing issues and other respiratory problems
  • Hypothermia or problems with body temperature control
  • Brain damage, bleeding in the brain, or accumulating fluid in the brain
  • Vision or hearing problems
  • Heart issues, including low blood pressure
  • Developmental and cognitive delays
  • Gastrointestinal issues, metabolism issues, and a weakened immune system

As one of the long-term complications of premature birth, some of the risk factors of cerebral palsy can be attributed to the baby being born preterm. While it’s true that many cases of CP occur due to a lack of oxygen during the birth process, there can be other causes, including some that overlap with the risk of premature birth.

Low birth weight is one example: babies who weigh less than five pounds at birth have a greater chance of having CP, according to the CDC. Moreover, just as multiple births pose a greater risk of premature birth, they also increase the risk of a child being diagnosed with CP. Certain infections during pregnancy, along with various gestational and birthing complications, such as preeclampsia combined with low birth weight, can also be risk factors for cerebral palsy from a premature birth.

What Can be Done to Prevent Both Premature Birth and CP?

Unfortunately, not all premature births can be prevented, and at times, it is impossible to predict whether a pregnant woman is at risk of delivering early. However, there are certain steps that can be taken to decrease your chances of a premature birth, as well as to decrease the chances of a cerebral palsy diagnosis.

First and foremost, pregnant women should receive regular medical care and check-ups, as well as eat a healthy diet and maintain a healthy lifestyle. If a woman is at high risk for preterm birth, such as by having multiples or having had a previous preterm birth, regular monitoring by a doctor is imperative. Avoiding stress, smoking, and drinking are all ways to help prevent premature labor, as is the prompt treatment of any infections or other dangerous conditions.

What Should You Do if You Suspect that Medical Negligence or Malpractice is to Blame for Your Child’s CP Diagnosis?

In some cases, premature birth is a direct result of an error made by a medical professional or hospital. If the difficulties inherent to your child’s birth could have been prevented or mitigated by competent medical care, you may have a valid claim for medical malpractice against the practitioner and hospital. You should consult with an experienced medical malpractice attorney to discuss your legal rights and options.

The Cerebral Palsy Family Lawyers at Janet, Janet & Suggs have over 40 years of experience with medical malpractice cases. We have a nationally recognized track record of successful verdicts that demonstrate our commitment to working for justice and fair compensation. Our aim is to achieve justice and compensation for victims of birth injury medical malpractice, and there are no fees unless your case is won. Contact us for a free consultation to discuss your case and understand your rights.



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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