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We describe trends in the prevalence of cerebral palsy (CP) by birth weight group, and in the severity of motor impairments and presence of associated intellectual impairment, in Northern Ireland from 1981 to 1997 (n=909; 510 males, 399 females; total population 415 936 live births) using data from a population-based register of CP. Children with suspected CP or who died before 1 year of age and those with CP of postneonatal origin were excluded. Prevalence of CP was 2.2 per 1000 live births without significant change over time. Among very-low-birthweight (<1500g) live births, prevalence was 44.5 per 1000 (95% confidence interval 32.3–59.8) from 1994 to 1997, with evidence of a statistically significant decline in prevalence since the mid- to late 1980s accompanied by a decrease in the severity of motor impairment and likelihood of intellectual impairment. Among moderately-low-birthweight (1500–2499g) children there was weaker evidence of a peak prevalence in the late 1980s. Prevalence among normal-birthweight infants did not change significantly, but outcome in terms of severity of motor impairment and intellectual impairment improved in the 1990s. Occurrence of bilateral spasticity from 1994 to 1997 was associated with greater severity and likelihood of intellectual impairment for normal-birthweight individuals than for low- or very-low-birth weight individuals.