New treatment offers hope of reducing harm to babies born prematurely

Jeremy Hunt calls for maternity safety enquiry

Every year in England between 4,000 and 5,000 babies are born prematurely before 30 weeks’ gestation. Prematurity increases the risk of various serious conditions, including cerebral palsy. The risk of developing cerebral palsy is around 10% for babies born before 30 weeks of pregnancy, compared to a 0.1% risk if born at full term (over 39 weeks’ gestation).

Currently, when a woman goes into labour prematurely, depending on the gestation (i.e. how early in the pregnancy) she may receive various treatments designed to slow down the birth and protect the highly vulnerable baby from the risk of serious conditions, such as respiratory distress syndrome, infection etc. Standard treatments include:

  • drugs to slow down labour/contractions
  • corticosteroids to protect the baby’s lungs, reducing the risk of respiratory problems
  • antibiotics, particularly where the mother is known to carry group B strep or her waters have broken prematurely or for a prolonged period of time, to protect the baby from infection

However, to date, large numbers of premature babies continue to suffer from cerebral palsy and its disabling effects.

Can magnesium sulphate protect premature babies from developing cerebral palsy?

Scientific research over a number of years has proven that, for babies born before 30 weeks, treatment with magnesium sulphate can reduce the risk of cerebral palsy. It is thought that the drug works by stabilising the baby’s brain cells and therefore causing them to be better able to cope with the adverse effects of premature birth.

Magnesium sulphate is cheap to administer, costing the NHS just £1 per dose. A report by the National Neonatal Audit Programme indicates that administration of magnesium sulphate to eligible mothers increased from 53% in 2016 to 64% in 2017.

Initial evidence about the drug’s effectiveness is positive: it’s clear that treatment with the drug is increasingly being given to mothers at risk of very premature birth and, so far, the treatment has been shown to be very successful in reducing the rates of cerebral palsy. In fact, some research suggests that administration of the drug may reduce the chances of babies born before 30 weeks developing cerebral palsy by up to 30%.

The research published on magnesium sulphate so far is, therefore, very promising indeed, bringing hope that hundreds of babies born prematurely each year could avoid cerebral palsy as a result.

What is cerebral palsy?

Cerebral palsy is a serious neurological condition which is caused by damage to the brain during, around or immediately after the time of birth. It has many potential causes, including prematurity, untreated infection, kernicterus or oxygen deprivation to the unborn baby during pregnancy, labour, delivery and in the neonatal period after birth.

Depending on the cause of the condition, people affected by cerebral palsy may suffer from:

  • delayed developmental milestones, such as sitting or walking
  • abnormal muscle tone – being too stiff or too floppy
  • weakness in limbs
  • clumsy or jerky movements
  • uncontrolled movements
  • walking on tip-toes
  • swallowing difficulties
  • problems with speech
  • visual impairment
  • learning disabilities

The impact of the disability caused by cerebral palsy is lifelong and for many it is severe, impairing their mobility, posture, independence and their ability to communicate, care for themselves, participate in social or family activities or work.

Where cerebral palsy is the result of negligent maternity or neonatal care, Boyes Turner can help those suffering from the condition recover substantial compensation to relieve financial hardship and pay for adapted accommodation, essential equipment, therapies and care. However, cerebral palsy has many causes, many of which are not related to errors in maternity or neonatal care, and many sufferers of the condition do not have the financial benefit that comes from making a claim.

Boyes Turner welcomes the recent news that NHS England are now asking maternity units across the country to offer magnesium sulphate to all women whose babies could benefit, in the hope that fewer people will suffer the hardship caused by this serious and disabling condition.

If you or someone you care for have cerebral palsy or serious neurological disability caused by medical negligence and you would like to find out more about making a claim, contact the team by email at

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