Cerebral palsy is among the most commonly diagnosed disorders in the United States. In fact, cerebral palsy (CP) occurs in roughly one of every 500 live births and gets between 8,000 and 10,000 newly diagnosed people every year. The disorder is known to be caused by damage or abnormal development to a child’s developing brain, which in turn affects their ability to control their own muscles.

While cerebral palsy can occur during the first years of a child’s life, 80% to 90% of cases are congenital cerebral palsy, meaning they happen before or during childbirth. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), it was once believed that the main cause of congenital CP was a lack of oxygen to the infant during childbirth. While a lack of oxygen still contributes to a small number of CP diagnoses, the medical community now believes there are a number of issues that contribute to congenital CP.

Today, preterm labor seems to be the most significant risk factor for developing the disorder. Research has shown the infants at the greatest risk of developing CP are born before 28 weeks gestation and who weigh less than three pounds and four ounces at birth.

Who is at risk for premature birth?

While the specific causes of premature birth aren’t always known, there are some known factors that may put you at risk. According to the Mayo Clinic, you may be vulnerable to premature delivery if:

  • You have a history of premature birth.
  • You are pregnant with twins, triplets or multiples.
  • You were underweight or overweight before pregnancy.
  • You have a chronic condition such as high blood pressure or diabetes.
  • You smoke cigarettes or use illicit drugs.
  • You leave less than six months between pregnancies.
  • You experience a stressful life event while pregnant.

How to help prevent premature birth

While some premature births are unavoidable due to a health condition or unforeseen complications, there are steps you can take to help reduce your risk of premature birth. These include:

  • Getting good prenatal health care before and during pregnancy
  • Staying up to date on all of your vaccines.
  • Getting to a healthy weight prior to getting pregnant.
  • Maintaining a healthy diet and exercise regularly while pregnant.
  • Managing your chronic conditions like diabetes with your doctor.
  • Avoiding cigarettes and drugs while pregnant.
  • Keeping your stress levels under control during pregnancy.

In addition to these steps, be sure to work closely with your doctor during your pregnancy to attend to your unique health needs and concerns. Many people live happy and fulfilling lives with CP, but you can help to reduce the risk of your child developing CP by taking care of yourself during your pregnancy.