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Cerebral Palsy: New Hope

Cerebral palsy, a brain disorder that impairs the control of movement, affects 1 in every 300 preemies  -- and 1 in 8 of those born before 26 weeks. But there's good news on the horizon about early diagnosis.

Currently, doctors can't make a definitive diagnosis until a baby is at least 18 months and hasn't met important developmental milestones. (Problems before then  -- with motor skills, coordination, swallowing, and reflexes  -- may ultimately be caused by a temporary developmental delay, a less worrisome condition.)

But a recent Italian study suggests that during the first few months of life, specific types of spontaneous movements, when all the muscles cramp up suddenly, may indicate cerebral palsy. More research is needed to confirm this, but if you see spastic movements in your infant (especially a preemie), call your doctor, who can refer you to a pediatric neurologist, says Murray Goldstein, M.D., medical director of the United Cerebral Palsy Research and Educational Foundation.

Treatment can help a child learn to use other parts of his brain to take over the functions of damaged areas. The earlier it starts, the more effective it is.