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Diet tips to ensure your cerebral palsy child is healthy

Health & Science

When Eli was born, he suffered trauma that led to asphyxia (failure to establish breathing at birth) and severe jaundice, the yellow discoloration of the skin, eyes and body fluids. 

At four months, Baby Eli was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, cause by damage to the brain that would later affect his ability to control his muscles. 

“We used to visit the hospital frequently because of his frequent infections. However, through nutrition research that has taken me around three years, I realised that his poor health was closely related to his diet. I implemented some changes and my son is healthier and thriving,” says Eli’s mother, Rose Angira. 

Dr Mary Mugambi, a nutritionist, says that dealing with a CP child requires the assessment of a multi-disciplinary team that consists of a physician, physiotherapist, speech therapist, gastroenterologist, dentist, occupational therapist, and a nutritionist/dietician when the child is first diagnosed. 

“The nutritionist will use a feeding evaluation tool to assess all the feeding and mouth aspects. They will check if the child can open their mouth, chew, swallow, and the condition of their teeth, then devise a diet plan according to the findings,” says Dr Mugambi. 

Nutrition challenges

Rose says that during the first four years of her son’s life, she noticed he had constipation, pneumonia, bacterial infections, and choking secretions.

“Later, I realised he also had acid reflux,” reveals Rose. However, she admits that the nutrition plan was imperfect during the first three years because her son, who is non-verbal and immobile, also had chewing and swallowing issues. 

“I used to feed him a lot of carbohydrates without realising he had slow digestion because he is stationary. Eventually, he would get secretions that would build up in the throat and lungs because he could not cough them out. They would cause chest congestion that led to pneumonia. So, I realised that I must reduce them,” Rose says.

Dr Mugambi says an ideal diet written by a nutritionist will combat all these issues. Additionally, regular evaluations and assessments will also ensure that the child is eating foods with the right consistency and food group at the right time. 

Food to avoid

Some children with CP are hypotonic (have abnormally low muscle tone), and the nutritionist says they should have a low-calorie diet to encourage them to have a healthy weight.

“There are healthy carbs, but most food portions should be vegetables followed by proteins. Also, nuts and their butters enrich their meals,” says Rose. 

Dr Mugambi concurs, explaining that meals should have many antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals to boost the child’s immune system.

Ideally, the food should be baked, boiled or sautéd. If the child has chewing and swallowing challenges, the food should be blended to the right consistency depending on how a qualified dietician advises you. 

Positioning of the baby

Rose advises mums to feed their children at least 2 hours before bedtime and place them at a 90-degree position to reduce acidity.

“Never lay them down immediately. Feed in small portions because their digestion is slow. Instead of three big meals, give six small portions. Let the child take lukewarm water at a time because it reduces buildup,” she says. 

Some CP children are either obese or malnourished. These problems arise because caregivers and parents focus on the wrong food groups. Dr Mugambi says parents should professionally monitor the child’s weight, ideally after a maximum of three months. Additionally, if there is a weight issue, the dietician will advise accordingly.  

Other measures

Most kids with CP have epilepsy which is triggered by diet, constipation, and dehydration, which increases the episodes. Therefore, their parents should reduce high doses of medications and regulate their diet instead.

“Also, expose the child to sunlight because Vitamin D is important,” says Rose.

Dr Mugambi concurs adding, “A child with CP needs at least one hour of sunlight exposure.” 

“Disability in Kenya is still seen as a curse, witchcraft, or sins of the parents. Society should be careful with insensitive remarks,” says Eli’s mum.

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