The signs & symptoms of brain damage in newborns

Updated November 21, 2016

The signs and symptoms of brain damage in newborns vary greatly, depending on the cause and severity of the damage. Some symptoms of brain damage are visible immediately at birth, while others don't present themselves until the child begins to display developmental problems. Often, if these signs are detected early, doctors will be able to treat the baby in order to help alleviate the symptoms and aid in the child's development; however, most brain damage is irreversible.


One of the first recognisable signs of brain damage in newborns is the baby's appearance. While not all brain-damaged newborns have distinct features, physical abnormalities are a common sign of a more serious defect.

Babies that are very small and/or have abnormally tiny skulls may have suffered from brain damage. Other physical symptoms of brain-damaged babies includes trouble focusing the eyes, an abnormally large forehead, a deformed spine, and misshapen facial features.


Another early sign of brain damage in children is an abnormal temperament. While all newborns tend to cry often, if your child is excessively and inexplicably fussy, won't eat, and won't sleep lying down, as healthy babies do, he or she may have experienced brain damage. However, it's important to remember that all babies are different, and these symptoms don't necessarily indicate brain damage in your child.

Brain-damaged babies often have irregular sleeping patterns, and tend to sleep excessively or very little.

Developmental Delays

As your baby begins to develop, delays in reaching certain milestones may indicate brain damage that has actually been present from birth. If your child doesn't progress at a normal rate (crawling, walking, talking, and toilet training at the expected age), brain damage may be to blame. Only your doctor can determine whether this is true.

Other Signs and Symptoms

Depending on what type of damage the baby's brain has suffered, different symptoms may present themselves. Some other symptoms of brain damage in babies include difficulty breathing, seizures, and low or varying body temperature. Brain damaged newborns may also have discoloured, jaundiced skin.

Brain-damaged children sometimes display symptoms that are only apparent when a medical professional runs tests. Such symptoms include hydrocephalus (an excess of cerebrospinal fluid) and periventricular leukomalacia (softening of the brain).


There are many types of infant brain damage. Below are just a few examples.

Kernicterus occurs as red blood cells naturally break down in your baby's body at an excessive rate. This causes a build-up of billirubin, a substance that can be toxic in high levels. The most prominent symptom of kernicterus is highly jaundiced skin. Effects of kernicterus include cerebral palsy, seizures an spasticity, mental retardation, and hearing loss.

Cerebral palsy is a disorder caused by permanent, severe brain damage in newborns, either pre- or postnatally. Cerebral palsy can be caused by an infection during pregnancy, a prenatal stroke, or shortage of oxygen during birth, among many other things. The most prominent symptoms of cerebral palsy in newborns are seizures, spastic movements and physical defects.

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