Learn more about Down syndrome | Western Cape Government

Learn more about Down syndrome

Down syndrome infographic

What is Down syndrome?

Down syndrome is a chromosomal disorder arising at conception. It's a result of an extra number 21 chromosome (Trisomy 21), which forms due to a random error in cell division and causes delays in physical and intellectual development in affected individuals. However, the exact reason for this random error in cell division (that causes Down syndrome) is currently unknown.

Facts about Down syndrome

  • People with Down syndrome have mild to moderate intellectual impairment.
  • The cause of Down syndrome isn’t related to age, race, religion, or socio-economic situations.
  • It’s estimated that 1 in 1 000 babies born in developed countries and 1 in 650 babies born in developing countries are affected by Down syndrome.
  • 80% of children affected by Down syndrome are born from mothers under the age of 35, although women over the age of 35 are at a higher risk of having a child with Down syndrome.
  • Children with Down syndrome can be included in regular schools with regular academic programmes.
  • Although Down syndrome can’t be cured, people with this condition thrive from loving homes, appropriate medical care, early intervention, as well as educational, and vocational services.
  • Due to advanced medical care, most people born with Down syndrome have a life expectancy of approximately 55 years.

Prenatal screening

Detecting Down syndrome in a fetus is a 2-step process, this involves firstly a screening for risk and then a diagnostic test to determine if the condition exists.

Screening methods

There are several ways to identify high-risk pregnancies. This is usually done by measuring the mother's blood levels of certain proteins and hormones, and the use of ultrasound to scan nuchal translucency - the thickness of a layer of fluid that forms near the neck of a developing fetus. Too much fluid is often a sign of Down syndrome.

For more information please go to Down Syndrome South Africa.

Importance of early intervention

The first patterns of learning and behaviour influencing development are laid down in a child's early years. There are certain critical periods during a child's early years when they are most responsive to learning experiences. A child's environment and learning experiences have a major effect on development and learning. Both greatly influence the degree to which a child reaches their full potential.

Parents usually need help in establishing constructive patterns of parenting a young child with a disability. Providing adequate care, stimulation and training for their child during the critical early years when basic developmental skills should be acquired can be cost-effective.

Tips for parents

Raising a child with Down syndrome can be a challenging experience and it can be an emotional rollercoaster, especially for new parents. While the future may seem daunting, it’s important to remember that a child with Down syndrome needs the same love and support as any other child.

Remember that you’re not alone and there are organisations available that can help you and your baby. An early intervention programme will help your child reach their full potential.

The Center for Parent Information and Resources provides the following tips for parents:

  • Learn about Down syndrome. 
  • Encourage your child to be independent.
  • Give your child chores. 
  • Work with the professionals who are working with your child. 
  • Find out what your child is learning at school. 
  • Look for social opportunities in the community.
  • Talk with other parents whose children have Down syndrome. 
  • Be patient, be hopeful. 
  • Take pleasure in your beautiful one. 

School options for Down syndrome learners

Public schools must admit Down syndrome learners and serve their educational requirements without unfairly discriminating in any way. They may not administer any test related to the admission of a learner to a public school. Ordinary schools must make every effort to provide education for learners with special educational needs, making sure that these learners have the support that they require. It’s not enough for the school just to accept the child. The school must support the child's needs as well.

Find a special needs school near you.

Services provided by us

Worcester Hospital has a dedicated paediatric Down syndrome clinic open to all citizens with children who have Down syndrome. The clinic takes place every 3 months on a Friday morning and all children with Down syndrome are welcome to make use of the services available at the clinic.

Tygerberg Hospital offers a weekly Down syndrome support group, which is run by the Down Syndrome Association. It offers early developmental stimulation and support to parents.

At Red Cross War Memorial Children's Hospital, very specific services are offered for children who have Down syndrome and their families. The Toy Library, which is situated near the Developmental Clinic, attends to children with Down syndrome as well as their caregivers, from birth until they start school. Appointments are made monthly in accordance with the children's age so that the families of same-aged children meet with each other once a month when attending the Toy Library. This encourages the development of parent support groups, where they share stories with each other, and often provide solutions within their own peer group.

The Speech Therapy Department at the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital runs a speech therapy clinic in the Toy Library for all attending children. Speech delay is very common in children who have Down syndrome.  It's also one of the areas that parents have the most concerns about. The speech therapist does both individual and group therapy sessions, where children and their caregivers participate in activities as are seen in educare and pre-school settings, using aids such as music and reading materials, encouraging turn-taking and general social skills development.

The ultimate aim of these services is to provide children with basic school readiness skills.

For more information on Down syndrome, advice and support contact:

The content on this page was last updated on 19 October 2022