Cerebral palsy is a congenital disorder that is caused by damage to the brain during fetal development, before, during, or shortly after birth, or during infancy. Cerebral palsy, also called CP, affects motor skills, movement and muscle development, therefore it affects a person's ability to move his body and control the use of his muscles. It can also can lead to learning disabilities, hearing or vision loss and speech problems. While there is no cure for cerebral palsy, physical therapy, diet and special equipment can improve the quality of life. An estimated 35 percent of all children with cerebral palsy are malnourished due to a lack of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients and an overall reduced caloric intake.
Causes for Malnourishment in children with Cerebral Palsy
Eating may be challenging for individuals with cerebral palsy and their caregivers for several reasons. Since people with cerebral palsy have difficulty with motor control, it may be difficult or impossible to hold eating utensils and move food from the plate to their mouth. They may also find it difficult to coordinate the tongue, to chew, and to swallow, all of which may contribute to frustration and sometimes a refusal to eat or drink. An inability to swallow can also lead to choking or aspiration of food.
Nutritionally-Related Problems with Cerebral Palsy
Proper nutrition is necessary for the body to function optimally. Poor nutrition can lead to stunted growth, developmental delays of the brain, and low energy levels. Decreased muscle mass, weakness, retarded growth, and mental changes, including confusion and irritability, may also result. If severe, malnutrition can lead to death. Children with CP commonly suffer from constipation and tend to be both short and underweight for their age. A child with cerebral palsy needs the same nutrition as the average healthy child. The most nutritious foods that the child will be able to eat and also enjoy should be selected.
Care must be taken to select the right type foods for a child with cerebral palsy. Foods must be suitable for feeding the child and at the same time provide optimum nutritional value. Some simple foods such as eggs, puddings, custards and dry fruits, milk shakes, porridges etc could be included.
Foods which are very chewy or thick and sticky in the mouth should be avoided as they may be too difficult for a child with cerebral palsy to chew and swallow. Soft foods should be selected as often as possible so that it will be easier for the child to eat and get the nutrients he needs. If he has trouble using regular feeding dishes, those specially designed for people with cerebral palsy that may be available from a local medical supply store. It is a good practice to feed small quantities of food at a time and to increase the number of feeds in a day.
People with cerebral palsy frequently have stomach problems such as constipation. Foods rich in fiber prevent constipation and other gastrointestinal problems associated with cerebral palsy. Whole grains like whole legumes and whole wheat bread/roti, along with fruits and vegetables, can help prevent and decrease constipation .People with cerebral palsy sometimes vomit because it is too hard for them to get foods down their esophagus and coordinating the muscles around the mouth is difficult. In such cases nutritious drinks may be necessary. Supplementing with nutritional drinks is also important if it is difficult to get enough calories in or if the person is under weight.
At least five servings of fruits and vegetables every day in some form or the other is important. Vitamins and nutrients that are found in fruits are essential for proper growth and health of the brain. Many children who have cerebral palsy are malnourished. The vitamins in fruits and vegetables can help them feel more energized so that they have the strength to continue eating and working their muscles.
If the child finds it difficult to eat solids as well as to drink liquids, a feeding tube may be inserted under a doctor’s advice. Without adequate calories, protein, vitamins and minerals, it will be more difficult for the child to walk, go through physical therapy and take care of himself.
The child’s diet may be enriched with calories and protein by the addition of powdered milk, roasted and powdered ground nuts, cheese etc.