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Microcephaly

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KEY POINTS

  • Microcephaly is a birth defect that causes a baby’s head to be smaller than normal because the brain has not developed properly or stops growing at birth.
  • Treatment depends on how severe your child’s symptoms are.
  • Work with your child’s treatment team to learn how best to help your child, including ways to respond to behavior problems.

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What is microcephaly?

Microcephaly is a birth defect that causes a baby’s head to be smaller than normal because the brain has not developed properly or stops growing at birth.

Children with microcephaly may reach goals and milestones more slowly, but most can go to school, get jobs, and enjoy many of the same kinds of things that other kids do.

What is the cause?

Microcephaly may be inherited, which means that it is passed from parents to children through their genes. Genes are inside each cell of the body. They contain the information that tells the body how to develop and work. Babies with microcephaly may also be born with Down syndrome or other birth defects.

Microcephaly may be caused during pregnancy if the mother:

  • Uses drugs or drinks alcohol
  • Is infected with chickenpox, rubella, cytomegalovirus, or Zika virus
  • Is exposed to toxic chemicals such as lead, mercury, and some chemical fertilizers
  • Has a poor diet (not getting needed nutrients and vitamins)
  • Has untreated phenylketonuria (the body is not able to break down an amino acid called phenylalanine)

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms may be mild or sever and may include:

  • Seizures
  • Slower at learning to walk, feed themselves, or talk
  • Intellectual disability (decreased ability to read, write, understand, solve problems, or take care of themselves)
  • Trouble controlling legs and arms
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Hearing loss
  • Vision problems

How is it diagnosed?

Microcephaly may be diagnosed before birth, or shortly after birth during a baby's first physical exam.

The diagnosis before birth may be based on:

  • Blood tests of the mother
  • An ultrasound, which uses sound waves to show pictures of the unborn baby

The diagnosis after birth is usually based on measuring the size of the baby’s head. Other tests may include:

  • CT scan, which uses X-rays and a computer to show detailed pictures of the head and brain
  • MRI, which uses a strong magnetic field and radio waves to show detailed pictures of the head and brain

What is the treatment?

There is no treatment that will correct the size or shape of the baby’s head. Treatment depends on how severe your child’s symptoms are. Before you decide on your child's treatment, find out what your options are. Learn as much as you can and make your choice for your child's treatment based on your child's needs.

Babies with microcephaly may be able to get special services within the first year of life if they need them.

Children with severe symptoms may need to work with a speech therapist, occupational therapist, school psychologist, social worker, school nurse, or aide. A cognitive behavioral therapist can help your child learn to manage stress. Treatment will also include doing activities at home.

How can I help my child?

  • Look for your child’s strengths. No one knows what your child may be able to do in time, so don’t set your expectations too low. Encourage your child to try new things.
  • Work with your child’s treatment team to learn how best to help your child, including ways to respond to behavior problems.
  • Join a support group. Support groups can help by sharing common concerns and solutions to problems with other families in the same situation. You can find these services through your healthcare provider, schools, therapy programs, and local and national support organizations.
  • Pay attention to your own physical, mental, and emotional health. When you take care of yourself, it helps you and your loved one. You may want to see a mental health professional to help you cope with your stress.
Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2016.4 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2016-04-28
Last reviewed: 2016-03-07
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright © 2016 RelayHealth, a division of McKesson Technologies Inc. All rights reserved.
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