Signs of Seizures in Babies
About 5 percent of Americans will experience a seizure at some point in their lives, with newborns and very young children at highest risk. Seizures happen when cells in the brain have abnormal electrical activity, temporarily disrupting the brain's normal electrical signals. "It's like a short circuit in the brain," says Adam Hartman, M.D., assistant professor of Neurology and Pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center in Baltimore. Epilepsy is the most common cause of seizures, but many things, including birth trauma, brain disorders, and chemical imbalances, can trigger them. Often, doctors can't determine the reason for a seizure.
When you picture someone having a seizure, you probably envision a jerking, shaking body and a temporary loss of consciousness. But signs of seizures often are subtler in babies, Dr. Hartman notes. "At first, you might not notice that anything is wrong." Because the types of seizures that affect infants are different than those affecting adults, it is important to know these signs.
Signs of Seizures in Babies
- Febrile seizures. Your baby may roll her eyes, and her limbs may either stiffen or twitch and jerk. Up to 4 out of every 100 children age 6 months to 5 years have one of these seizures, which are triggered by high fevers, usually above 102°.
- Infantile spasms. This rare type of seizure occurs during an infant's first year (typically between 4 and 8 months). Your baby may bend forward or arch her back as her arms and legs stiffen. These spasms tend to occur when a child is waking up or going to sleep, or after a feeding. Infants can have hundreds of these seizures a day.
- Focal seizures. Your baby may sweat, vomit, become pale, and experience spasms or rigidity in one muscle group, such as fingers, arms, or legs. You may also observe gagging, lip smacking, screaming, crying, and loss of consciousness.
- Absence (petit mal) seizures. Your baby appears to be staring into space or daydreaming. She may blink rapidly or appear to be chewing. These episodes typically last less than 30 seconds and may occur several times a day.
- Atonic (drop attack) seizures. Your baby experiences a sudden loss of muscle tone that makes her go limp and unresponsive. Her head may drop suddenly, or if she is crawling or walking she might fall to the floor.
- Tonic seizures. Parts of your baby's body (arms, legs) or her entire body suddenly stiffen.
- Myoclonic seizures. A group of muscles, usually in the baby's neck, shoulders, or upper arms, starts to jerk. These seizures usually occur in clusters, several times a day and several days in a row.
What to do if Your Baby Has a Seizure
See your pediatrician if you think your baby is having seizures. "If possible, take a video of the episode on your smartphone to show to your doctor," suggests Dr. Hartman, who is also a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics' (AAP) Section on Neurology. It's important to pay attention to these things:
- How long the seizure lasts
- Where the seizure started (arms, legs, eyes) and whether it spread to other body parts
- What the movement looked like (staring, jerking, stiffening)
- What your baby was doing right before the episode (waking up, eating)
It can be frightening to watch your baby in the grips of a seizure. The most important thing you can do is make sure she is protected from injuries. Move away hard objects (toys, furniture) and roll her onto her side to help prevent choking in case she vomits. Do not try to snap her out of it or place anything in her mouth. Call 911 if your baby has trouble breathing, turns blue, seizes for more than five minutes, or is unresponsive for 30 minutes after a seizure ends.
If your baby is prone to seizures, your doctor may order a diagnostic test, such as an electroencephalogram (EEG), which traces the electrical waves of the brain, or a brain-imaging test, such as a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan, to determine a cause.
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