What are Neonatal Neurological Disorders?

A newborn baby can present with a variety of neurological problems that stem from conditions that affect his brain, spinal cord, peripheral nerves, and muscles. There are more than 600 neurological disorders that can occur throughout a person's lifetime, but fewer neurological conditions occur in newborns. These disorders can be present at birth or happen shortly after birth.

The foundation for development of your baby's brain starts in the first month after conception. The brain continues to develop throughout pregnancy and after birth. Any disruption or injury to the brain development during this period can lead to neurological problems. These conditions can occur due to a variety of reasons.

Types of Neonatal Neurological Disorders

While there are severe neurological problems a baby may have, these are the most common:

  • Seizures: These occur due to a variety of conditions and may range in severity.
  • Encephalopathy: This refers to your baby's general level of alertness due to a neurological condition. Your newborn may have feeding and breathing difficulties related to decreased consciousness.
  • Intracranial hemorrhage: Bleeding can occur in several parts of the brain. An intraventricular hemorrhage occurs most in premature newborns.
  • Congenital neurological defects: These are a group of disorders present at birth, and they are mostly related to brain and spinal cord malformations. This could include neural tube defects that affect the spinal cord and brain or cause hydrocephalus (excess fluid in the brain).
  • Birth asphyxia: This is a condition where a newborn infant is affected due to lack of adequate oxygen before, during, or immediately following birth.
  • Periventricular leukomalacia: This is a common neurological condition that affects premature newborns and is related to an injury to the periventricular white matter, a very specific area of the brain.
  • Hypotonia: Your newborn may have floppy or low muscle tone. This muscle weakness may be due to a variety of neuromuscular conditions. He may also have difficulty with breathing and feeding.
  • Metabolic disorders of the brain: The brain functions with the help of a variety of biochemical reactions. Any disruption in this process can lead to changes in neurological function (some are reversible, others not).

Causes and Risk Factors of Neonatal Neurological Disorders

In some cases, the condition is inherited from one or both parents, or the child has an abnormality in his or her chromosomes. Other factors that sometimes contribute are maternal health and toxin exposure, prematurity, labor and delivery complications, genetic disorders, and infections.

Neurological conditions can also be caused by improper growth within the brain or spinal cord; this improper growth can affect the brain itself, the veins within the brain, or the spinal cord. Premature babies are particularly at risk for disorders of the brain. Metabolic disorders such as phenylketonuria, which can cause neurological problems, are often detected at birth.

During birth, several issues can lead to the development of a neurological disorder. These include:

  • A lack of oxygen during birth or shortly after
  • Certain infections in a mother's genital tract that are passed to the baby during the birth
  • A physical injury to the head that causes bleeding inside the brain

In the period after birth, but while the child is still very young, these disorders can be caused by:

  • Immune disorders or other medical conditions
  • Viral or bacterial infections like meningitis or encephalitis
  • Head injury


The complications of a neurological disorder can range from mild to severe. Some children will have a lifelong disability, while others may simply be slow to reach developmental milestones. Some conditions, especially pseudotumor cerebri, can result in blindness if left untreated. Early diagnosis and effective treatment is the best way to minimize the effects or complications from these brain disorders.

Why choose UPMC Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh for neonatal neurological disorders?

Our world-renowned physicians specializing in neonatal neurology are board certified, and our staff has many years of combined experience. We're able to provide a host of services in neonatal neurology you and your family may need. Our comprehensive team of specialists offers services that encompass all areas of child neurology.

In addition to our clinical work, we also lead and participate in clinical trials and research studies to find new and better treatments for each child under our care.

To learn more about neurological conditions in newborns or to schedule an appointment for your child with UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh's Brain Care Institute, please call 412-692-5520.