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Microcephaly: Everything About the Rare Birth Defect

Medically reviewed by Ruben Macapinlac, MD, DPPS · Pediatrics · Philippine Pediatric Society

Written by Nikita Bhalla · Updated Oct 14, 2021

Microcephaly: Everything About the Rare Birth Defect

Microcephaly refers to a nervous system disorder in which the size of a baby’s head is smaller compared to that of a normal child for their age and gender. The condition results in abnormal or slower brain development. This may happen due to abnormal brain growth in the womb, or conditions during birth or infancy. It can also be a result of different genetic and environmental factors. Babies and children with this condition tend to face several developmental issues. 

In this article, let’s have a look at different causes, symptoms, and tips to prevent microcephaly.

Causes of Microcephaly

Though the exact cause of the condition is not clearly established, there are certain factors which might be related to its occurrence. 

Possible causes include:

  • Congenital microcephaly caused by a genetic problem
  • Acquired microcephaly caused by environment factors

In congenital microcephaly, the genetic defect affects brain development. Children with Down syndrome and genetic disorders often have microcephaly.

In acquired microcephaly, the child’s growth and development are adversely affected due to certain external factors. Those factors may include:

  • Viral infections: Rubella, Chickenpox or Zika
  • Parasite infections: Toxoplasmosis or Cytomegalovirus
  • Toxic chemicals such as lead
  • Lack of nutrients
  • Alcohol and drugs

Other causes leading to acquired microcephaly also include:

  • Newborn suffering a hemorrhage or stroke
  • Brain injury after birth
  • Defects in the spine or brain

Symptoms of Microcephaly

While the most significant sign of the condition is a reduced head size, there are other impacts of microcephaly on the baby’s overall growth and development. These effects may have an extreme range between mild and severe.

Mild cases of the condition may cause a small head, but no other severe problems to the child. Gradually, the head continues to grow, however, it might not reach the head circumference of that of a normal child. 

While some children with microcephaly face learning difficulties, others might not have the same problem. It’s also possible that some children will not experience any problems.

Other symptoms include:

  • Trouble with balancing and coordination
  • Delayed development in sitting, standing, walking, etc.
  • Difficulty swallowing and feeding problems
  • Hearing impairment
  • Hyperactivity (a condition in which the child has difficulty in concentrating or staying calm)
  • Seizures
  • Short height
  • Speech and vision problems
  • Abnormal muscle tone (either too loose or too tight)
  • A child may have very short stature or dwarfism

A baby born with severe microcephaly might also have a backwards-sloping forehead.

Finally, please note that microcephaly may be a part of a syndrome of congenital abnormalities, meaning the baby may have other health issues.

Treatment for Microcephaly

Currently, there is no cure available for this condition. However, doctors shall provide medication and therapies to help improve the baby’s health condition and help them cope with problems in development, behavior, and seizures.

A child with mild microcephaly will need regular medical checkups to make sure their growth and development are on the right track.

Children with severe cases of the condition might need lifelong treatment. Their symptoms require treatment in order to keep them under control. This is because some of the symptoms can be fatal (seizures, for example). Through correct lifelong treatment, and love and support from the family, the child can lead a happy and peaceful life. 

Some treatment options include:

  • Medicines to deal with mental problems like seizures or hyperactivity and to improve nerve and muscle functions
  • Speech therapy
  • Physical and occupational therapy

Prevention Tips

While there is no guaranteed or proven treatment to prevent congenital microcephaly, acquired microcephaly can be avoided if pregnant women do the following:

  • Have a healthy eating plan with good foods and prenatal vitamins
  • Avoid consumption of alcohol
  • Stay away from chemicals
  • Wash your hands at regular intervals
  • Follow timely treatment for any illness
  • Refrain from changing the litter box of pets, as these may contain parasites
  • Use insect repellents which are labelled “safe during pregnancy”

Learn more about Premature Babies here.


Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Medically reviewed by

Ruben Macapinlac, MD, DPPS

Pediatrics · Philippine Pediatric Society

Written by Nikita Bhalla · Updated Oct 14, 2021

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