The signs of CP vary greatly because there are many different types and levels of disability, but an early indication is a delay in controlling movement of the head or arms and legs. This list of cerebral palsy symptoms, divided by age range, is not comprehensive but serves as a good starting point to determine if your child may have developmental delays. If you see any of these indicators, call your child’s doctor or nurse.

Indicators of Developmental Delays

Your child may have developmental delays if s/he has:

  • Difficulty controlling their head when picked up
  • Stiff or shaky arms or legs
  • Stiff legs that cross or “scissor” when picked up
  • Oral motor difficulties and problems sucking and feeding

Your child may have developmental delays if s/he:

  • Continues to exhibit poor head control when picked up
  • May reach with only one hand while keeping the other in a fist
  • Problems eating and drinking
  • May not roll over without assistance
  • May not be able to push up with their hands when laying on their stomach

Your child may have developmental delays if s/he:

  • Crawl by pushing off with one hand and leg while dragging the opposite hand and leg
  • Not able to sit by himself or herself

Your child may have developmental delays if s/he:

  • Not able to crawl or attempt to pull themselves up
  • Not able to stand with support

Your child may have developmental delays if s/he:

  • Can’t say simple words
  • Doesn’t point or interact with environment

Basic Developmental Skills

Many children with cerebral palsy are diagnosed shortly after birth. Others, however, may go months or even years with no diagnosis. Without a diagnosis, valuable early therapies and treatments are delayed.

How is a parent struggling with the question “is my child developing normally?” supposed to tell? If you are concerned, you should not hesitate to talk to your doctor. Trust your hunches. According to research, parental concerns detect 70% – 80% of all disabilities in children. So if your gut is telling you something is not right, chances are, it’s not.

Meanwhile, there are guidelines known as “developmental milestones” to help parents determine whether or not their child is keeping up with his or her peers. These milestones are a set of functional skills or age-specific tasks that most children can do at a certain age range. For children who have suffered a brain injury at birth, however, these guidelines often don’t apply. Depending on the severity and location of the brain injury, some children experiencing developmental delays may be able to achieve milestones only through a variety of therapy and interventions. Others with severe brain injuries may never achieve some developmental milestones.

Cerebral palsy is caused by a problem in the brain that affects a child’s ability to control his or her muscles. Problems in different parts of the brain cause problems in different parts of the body. There are many possible causes of problems, such as genetic conditions, problems with the blood supply to the brain before birth, infections, bleeding in the brain, lack of oxygen, severe jaundice, and head injury. A child who lacks basic motor skills will have difficulty reaching subsequent milestones without help.

There are basic developmental skills which lay the foundation for all learning and development. Although all children develop at their own rate, growth can be defined in the following areas:

1) Gross Motor – Gross motor skills enable your baby to achieve major milestones such as head control, sitting, crawling, maybe even starting to walk. Children exhibiting a delay in gross motor skills need to be evaluated as early as possible so they can start getting physical therapy to help them strengthen their muscles.

2) Fine Motor – These skills allow a child to hold a spoon, or pick up a piece of cereal between thumb and finger. Children exhibiting delays in these skills will have difficulty holding a spoon, manipulating small objects or grasping items between their thumb and fingers.

3) Sensory – Sensory skills include seeing, hearing, tasting, touching and smelling. A child with a brain injury may have trouble processing information from these senses, a condition known as Sensory Processing Disorder. Normally diagnosed by developmental pediatricians, pediatric neurologists and child psychologists, children experiencing difficulties with sensory processing may exhibit either a “hyper” (over) or “hypo” (under) sensitivity to stimulation of the senses.

An infant with hypersensitivity may:

  • Dislike being touched or dressed
  • Seem intolerant of normal lighting in a room
  • Startle easily at small sounds

An infant with hyposensitivity, may:

  • Seem restless and seek stimulation
  • Not startle or respond to loud noises

4) Language – A child with cerebral palsy may lack the muscle strength in the mouth and tongue to control sounds or may have trouble hearing or processing sound, all of which will delay language. An infant developing normally from birth to 5 months will react to loud sounds, turn her head toward a sound source, watch your face when you speak, make pleasure and displeasure sounds (laugh, giggle, cry, or fuss), and make noise when talked to. Other milestones are listed by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

5) Social and Emotional – Social and emotional milestones are often harder to pinpoint than signs of physical development. A child from birth to 12 months who has trouble processing sensory input or who has poor control of movement because of a brain injury may be delayed in:

  • Crying to express distress or to attract attention
  • Fixating on faces
  • Smiling purposefully at certain people (mom, for example)
  • Cooing or laughing to attract attention
  • Playing “peek-a-boo” or other games
  • Responding to their own names
  • Developing stranger anxiety

A full list of both social and emotional milestones is listed here.

6) Intellectual – These milestones include speaking, learning to read, recognizing pictures, colors, shapes, etc. Learn more about intellectual development delays.

An Important Note about Developmental Milestones

Developmental milestones are only guidelines. No two babies are alike and no two develop the same, though most reach certain milestones at similar ages. Every child develops at their own rate. If your child was born prematurely, you need to look at the guidelines a little differently. Also, all human development depends on environmental stimulation. A child deprived of a loving, nurturing and stimulating environment may experience developmental delays.

Your baby’s physician will evaluate your child’s development at each well-baby visit. Don’t be surprised if the pediatrician tells you not to worry, to be patient and to give your child more time to develop. Often, that’s what parents hear, especially in the early stages of investigating their child’s apparent delays. And it’s often true. Children develop at different rates; the pediatrician is well aware that many children show sudden bursts in development rather than slow, steady growth. However, be mindful of your “gut” feeling: whether it’s in regards to your child’s health or the birthing process. If you believe something went wrong at the time of your delivery, get a second opinion on your child’s medical records as they often hold answers to questions surrounding your child’s birth.

Alternatively to a “wait and see” approach, your pediatrician may recommend that a developmental screening is conducted. Its purpose is to see if your child is experiencing a developmental delay. The screening is a quick, general measure of your child’s skills and development. It’s not detailed enough to make a diagnosis, but it will show whether a child should be referred for a more in-depth developmental evaluation.

CPFN Milestone Quiz

In order to support parents who are concerned about their child's development, we created an easy online quiz that helps parents understand what to do next. While useful to many parents, it's important to remember that no quiz can replace the expert guidance and insight that can be provided by a physician.

1. Milestone Checklist at the CDC, “
2. The American Academy of Pediatrics offers a Parenting website, Ages & Stages, “
3. National Library of Medicine, National Institute of Health, Medline Plus, Infant and Newborn development, “
4. March of Dimes, Your Growing Baby, “
5. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC, Child Development, “

Was Your Child's CP Preventable?