Understanding Seizures in Young Children
Not Knowing Can Cause a lot of Worry
If you have ever witnessed a seizure, it’s pretty scary. You feel may alarm, anxiety, fear, helplessness, confusion, and/or extreme sadness. If you have never witnessed someone having a seizure before, you may wonder what you should do in that situation. How do you help? Should you call 911? You may panic when you don't know how to react, and you'll likely just stand there and watch helplessly.
When it’s an adult that is having a seizure, it’s scary enough. However, when it’s a child—much worse, if it’s your own child—it’s even more terrifying. Your fright may transform into major concern—the thought of their well-being, a worry that you did something to cause it, and the need to do something to help.
What is happening to the child? What caused the seizure? Did they suffer any physical injuries as a result? Will the injuries affect them for the rest of their life? What can you do to help? How do you keep this from happening again? You may feel a great deal of guilt that you can’t shake.
All of these thoughts, concerns, and worries are perfectly valid and understandable. It’s your job to worry—to be concerned for the well-being of your children. It’s what keeps them safe and alive.
Hopefully, this article can help shed some light on what goes on during a seizure and prepare you for a possible episode in the future. I would never wish this on anyone, but in the case that it has or it does, I’m hoping you find the answers and understanding you need below.
What Exactly Is Happening During a Seizure?
Your brain is made up of billions of nerve cells called neurons that communicate with one another through tiny electrical impulses. A seizure occurs when a large number of the cells send out electrical charges at the same time. This intense wave of electricity overwhelms the brain and results in a seizure, which can cause convulsions, muscle spasms, loss of consciousness, and other strange behavior.
Although they may look painful, seizures don't really cause pain. But, they may be frightening for the children and the people around them.
My Experience With Children Having Seizures
Unfortunately, it is one of the most common disorders of the nervous system. It affects children and adults of all races and ethnic backgrounds. I have had multiple encounters with children having seizures myself—a few times with a couple of my students, and even a few with my own child.
When I taught elementary school in my 20s, I experienced students in my classroom with seizures. I was informed of the of what the seizures looked like for each child, how to handle them, and what to do in the aftermath (or if the seizures lasted too long). It was very scary at first, but learning how to recognize and handle the situation made it a lot easier to deal with.
Then, after having my first child (when my Elliot was still a baby) I saw it happen again—this time, with my own child. He would suddenly start convulsing, and it would last a few seconds at the most. Even though I have had previous experience dealing with seizures, nothing prepared me for witnessing it happening to my own child. Thankfully, it only happened a few times, and in the four years he has blessed us by being in our lives, it has never happened again.
I am grateful that I did my research to better understand seizures, and that they never became anything serious.
Different Types of Seizures
There are many different types of seizures, and the type someone experiences depends on what part of the brain and how much of it is affected. Because this article is focused on children, I think it’s important to outline the types seizures that most commonly occur during childhood to give you an understanding of what you may see, and hopefully, give you a little comfort.
Common Seizure Types in Children
The main types of seizures that happen in children are as follows:
- Neonatal seizures: These occur within 28 days of birth. Most occur soon after the child is born. They may be due to a large variety of conditions. It may be difficult to determine if a newborn is actually seizing because they often do not have convulsions. Instead, they may have rapid eye movements, smack their lips, or have periods of no breathing.
- Infantile seizures: These kinds of seizures are common in children younger than 18 months. They are often associated with mental retardation and consist of sudden spasms in certain muscle groups, causing the child to assume a flexed stature. They are frequently seen upon waking up.
- Febrile seizures: These occur when a child contracts an illness—such as an ear infection, a cold, or the chickenpox—accompanied by fever. Febrile seizures are the most common type of seizure seen in children; 2–5% percent of children have a febrile seizure at some point during their childhood. 1 in 4 children who have a febrile seizure will have another—usually within a year.
- Epileptic seizures: The term "epileptic" says nothing about the type of seizure or cause of the seizure, only that the seizure is recurring. When a child has two or more seizures with no known cause, this is diagnosed as epilepsy. 30% of children diagnosed with epilepsy continue to have repeated seizures into adulthood, while others improve over time.
Main Types of Seizures
The two main types of seizures that take place in the general population are called focal (partial) seizures and generalized seizures.
Focal seizures take place when abnormal electrical brain function occurs in one or more areas on one side of the brain. Before a focal seizure, your child may have some signs that the seizure is about to happen. The most common sign involves your child suddenly feeling impending doom or fear. Your child may also have changes in vision, hearing and/or sense of smell.
The two types of focal seizures are:
- Simple focal seizure: The seizure activity is limited to an isolated muscle group. For example, it may only include the fingers, or larger muscles in the arms and legs. There may be temporary visual or hearing impairment as well, but it is typically a muscle group that is affected. There may also be sweating, nausea, or the skin may turn pale. There is usually no loss of consciousness.
- Complex focal seizure: This type of seizure often occurs in the areas of the brain that control emotion and memory function. There may be loss of consciousness or just loss of awareness. The person may look awake but have a variety of unusual behaviors, ranging from gagging, lip smacking, running, screaming, crying, or laughing. They may also be sleepy after the seizure.
A generalized seizure occurs in both sides of the brain. Your child will likely lose consciousness and be tired after the seizure.
Types of generalized seizures include:
- Absence seizure: This is also called petit mal seizure. This seizure causes a brief changed state of consciousness and staring. He will likely maintain posture, but his mouth or face may twitch or his eyes may blink rapidly. The seizure usually lasts no longer than 30 seconds. When the seizure is over, she may not recall what just occurred and may go on with activities as though nothing happened. These seizures may occur several times a day. This type of seizure is sometimes mistaken for a learning or behavioral problem and almost always start between the ages of 4 to 12 years old.
- Atonic seizure: This is also called a drop attack. With an atonic seizure, your child has a sudden loss of muscle tone and may fall from a standing position or suddenly drop his head. During the seizure, she will be limp and unresponsive. This one is pretty scary.
- Generalized tonic-clonic seizure (GTC): This is also called grand mal seizure. The classic form of this kind of seizure has 5 distinct phases. Your child’s body, arms, and legs will flex, straighten out, and shake. This is followed by contraction and relaxation of the muscles and being very sleepy afterward. He may have problems with vision or speech, and may have a bad headache, fatigue, or body aches after the seizure due to his muscles contracting. Not all of these phases occur in everyone with this type of seizure.
- Myoclonic seizure: This type of seizure causes quick movements or sudden jerking of a group of muscles. These seizures tend to occur in clusters. This means that they may occur several times a day, or for several days in a row.
In any case, you should immediately see a doctor just to assess the condition of your child, and possibly diagnose the problem.
How Do I Recognize a Seizure?
It really depends on the type of seizure the child is experiencing. Some types do not cause the twitching and jerking you think would happen when someone is having a seizure. Sometimes, symptoms are so subtle that you may not even realize a seizure is happening. The child may just stare blankly out into space for a few seconds or start clapping for no reason.
If you truly think your child is experiencing a seizure, it’s really important to make sure that you document everything that you witness before, during, and after the episode so that the type of seizure can be properly diagnosed.
Signs a Seizure May Be Happening
Here are some of the most common symptoms:
- The most dramatic symptom is generalized convulsions. Your child may undergo rhythmic jerking and muscle spasms—sometimes with difficulty breathing and eye-rolling.
- They are often sleepy and confused after the seizure and won't not remember the seizure afterward. This symptom group is common with grand mal and febrile seizures.
- Children with absence seizures (petit mal) display a loss of awareness with staring or blinking that starts and stops quickly. There are no convulsive movements. These children return to normal as soon as the seizure stops.
- Repetitive movements such as chewing, lip smacking, or clapping, followed by confusion, are common in children suffering from a type of seizure disorder known as complex partial seizures.
Partial seizures usually affect only one group of muscles. Spasms may move from group to group. These are called march seizures. Children with this type of seizure may also behave strangely during the episode and may or may not remember the seizure itself after it ends.
What Do I Do If My Child Is Having a Seizure?
Because of the uncontrollable and often violent movements during a seizure, it's possible for children to injure themselves if they fall to the ground or hit things around them.
When a child has a convulsion, parents or other caregivers should:
- Try to protect the child from harm by keeping the child away from stairs, sharp objects, and other potential hazards.
- Lay your child down.
- Never try to constrain a child or pin them down. Not only can it be extremely dangerous for the child, but it can also be dangerous for you.
- Seek medical attention if a seizure lasts more than five minutes.
Although the majority of seizures aren't life-threatening and don't require immediate medical attention, one kind does: status epilepticus—a life-threatening condition in which a person has a prolonged seizure or consecutive seizures without regaining consciousness in between them. The risks increase the longer the seizure goes on, which is why you should always get emergency medical help if a seizure lasts more than five minutes.
How Do I Prevent My Child From Having Seizures?
If you have a child struggling with epilepsy, it can be frustrating trying to figure out what triggers a seizure. If your child has never had a seizure, but you want to give them the best fighting chance, there are definitely things you can do.
There are two big areas that are within your control that may prevent your child from ever having a seizure, or from ever having one again.
Provide your child with a balanced diet filled with whole foods, meaning fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy, and whole grains that have not been processed. Also be mindful of the side effects associated with over-the-counter and prescription medications. This will reduce your child's exposure to substances that may disrupt the nervous system.
A balanced diet includes drinking plenty of water and incorporating foods from all the different food groups, which helps the body and brain function optimally, and helps us stay healthy. Research has also shown that it also helps reduce the risk of seizures for people with epilepsy. A balanced diet may also help keep a regular sleep pattern and energy level—both of which are good for overall health. Getting enough sleep also helps to reduce the risk of seizures.
Here are some common foods that are considered risky for those who experience seizures:
- Refined flours and grains: Gluten intolerance may seem like a product of our time, but it is very real for some people. Gluten proteins found in grains can increase inflammation and trigger seizures. This can be avoided by simply cutting out all refined grains, like white flour, bread flour, and pastry flour, and either buying organic or making your own whole grain bread products.
- Soy products: Nearly all soy products are genetically modified, meaning that it is engineered to achieve certain results (e.g. improved taste or resistance to herbicides or droughts). Found in many baby foods, soy is now commonly known to trigger allergic reactions and seizures in children. It can even cause harm to developing fetuses when ingested by pregnant mothers. It’s a tricky one to avoid because it isn’t always on the label. Most processed food products (usually in boxes, bags, cans, or packages) contain soy products. I would consider removing these from your child’s diet altogether.
- Refined sugars: Processed sugar should generally be avoided. Glucose is necessary for normal brain function, but refined sugar has all of the natural nutrients removed during processing and has often been linked to poor brain activity and seizures. This does not mean cutting back on natural sugars, like those found in fresh fruit. Even organic honey, and other natural sugars like coconut and palm sugar are okay since they haven’t had chemicals added or nutrients removed.
- Processed meat and dairy products: Many children nowadays have reactions to dairy products. This is due to the hormones and antibiotics injected into livestock—trace amounts of which can accumulate in food products. Even the genetically modified grains fed to the animals that are often covered in pesticides can alter the foods we end up consuming. The only way to avoid this is to purchase grass-fed, full-fat, organic meat and dairy products. Be sure that your pork products have been labeled nitrate-free since nitrates have been listed as dangerous for consumption.
- Artificial sweeteners: Artificial sweeteners, like NutraSweet, Equal, and those found in diet soda, to name a few, cause all sorts of issues once they're in your body, like excessive nerve cell firing and an increased risk of epileptic attacks and other types of seizures. Aspartame, one of most widely consumed food additives in the world, also contains phenylalanine, which is toxic to neurons and also linked to neurological damage and seizure activity.
- MSG or table salt: Many food additives, such as MSG, are considered to be toxic to human bodies because they stimulate nerve cells to rapidly fire and burn out, which can trigger a seizure in the brain. Unfortunately, it is widely used in the food industry and restaurants as a flavor enhancer because it intensifies meaty, savory flavors. Avoiding MSG is as easy as avoiding processed food products. MSG is often listed on food labels as "flavoring," because the manufacturers know that MSG has developed a bad reputation. Keep in mind that fresh, natural foods shouldn't, and often don't require, flavor enhancement, so preparing your own meals at home with fresh ingredients is the best way to avoid it.
What Causes Seizures in Children?
Anything that interrupts the normal nerve cell conduction and communication between nerve cells in the brain can cause a seizure. Many of the most common reasons for seizures in children include:
- Lack of oxygen
- Head trauma
- Low blood sugar or pressure
- Metabolic disorders
- Drugs (taken by child, or by mom during pregnancy)
- Medications (taken by child, or by mom during pregnancy)
- Disordered blood vessels
- Bleeding inside the brain
- Uncontrolled firing of neurons
- Processed foods
- Refined food ingredients
A seizure may be caused by a combination of these factors. In many cases, doctors may not be able to give you the definite cause of a seizure.
What Can Trigger a Seizure in a Child?
Most seizures happen randomly, with no obvious pattern. However, there are certain things that seem to trigger or cause a seizure in children. If you know what these triggers are, you can watch to see if they affect your child.
- Fever: Some children have a seizure when their body temperature rises quickly—usually to 102 degrees or higher. This often leads to febrile seizures but rarely epilepsy. Fever-induced seizures affect children between the ages of 3 months and 6 years and are most common in toddlers. About 1/3 of children who have a febrile seizure will have another one, but most children outgrow them.
- Lights: This is the trigger most people think of, but it is not as common as you'd think. Still, people with epilepsy are photosensitive (sensitive to light), and flashing or flickering lights, strobes, video games, or computer and TV screens can cause seizures. Wearing polarized sunglasses, not sitting too close to a screen, and taking frequent breaks away from the screen can help.
- Brain disorders: Certain brain conditions, such as cerebral palsy, mental retardation, and neurofibromatosis may be more likely to have seizures. They may be directly contributing to the seizures or likelihood of recurring seizures.
- Lifestyle/habits: Certain habits, such as getting insufficient sleep and drug/alcohol abuse, can also lead to seizures for some people with epilepsy. This may also include a variety of prescription medications and even some antibiotics.
- Hormone change: Hormone fluctuation, like during puberty or menstruation, can trigger seizure episodes.
- Processed foods: Chemicals and preservatives in many commercial food products have been suggested to interfere with brain and central nervous system function, hormone regulation, digestion. When processed foods are eliminated from the diet, the seizures may go away as well.
- Other triggers: Intense color contrasts, stress, anxiety, and activities that require hard thinking can all be triggers.
Seizures can be very scary regardless of who they are happening to, but they are particularly bad when they are happening to your child. Knowing the signs and symptoms are the first step in protecting your child(ren) from seizures in the future, and knowing how to prevent them from ever happening again is the next step.
There is a long list of toxins and drugs reported to induce seizures in your child’s environment. By eliminating them from your child’s life, you can significantly reduce the risk of an episode. Seizures don’t have to be a life sentence for anyone. By taking the necessary steps to finding out what is going on with your child, how to handle them if they happen, and doing everything within your control, you are giving your child has the best chance of a happy and healthy future.
Don’t be scared to stand up for your child’s health and safety. As a parent, you are the only one that can. For more information, please visit the variety of great resources listed within this article, or do even more research on your own. Remember that not everything you read on the internet is as it seems though. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find the right answers.
This article is not intended to diagnose or treat any illness or condition. It is intended for informational purposes only. Do your own research and consult with your doctor. Be proactive about your child's health and well-being.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
Questions & Answers
© 2018 Victoria Van Ness