Seizures in babies occur when an unusual burst of electrical activity occurs between neurons, or brain cells, in the brain. Signs and symptoms include eye rolling, clenching of muscles, and keeping the head or eyes to one side.

Causes may include brain injury, infection, and underlying health conditions, such as cerebral palsy. A baby’s risk of fever-related seizure is highest when they are younger than 18 months.

Sometimes, it is difficult for parents or caregivers to notice seizures in babies and young children, as they can be subtle. However, common signs include loss of consciousness and jerking of the arms and legs.

Read on to learn more about the signs and symptoms of a baby seizure and treatment.

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The symptoms a baby experiences depend on the type of seizure they have.

Subtle seizures

These types of seizures are most common in the newborn period. However, these signs may resemble usual, everyday movements and may be difficult to spot. Symptoms of subtle seizures can include:

  • eye-rolling, blinking, staring
  • uncontrolled eye movements
  • protruding tongue
  • leg cycling
  • long pauses between breaths

Tonic seizures

Tonic means muscle stiffness. When a baby experiences a tonic seizure, they may:

  • completely stiffen
  • bend and hold their arms and legs in awkward positions
  • keep their head to one side
  • keep their eyes to one side

Clonic seizures

Clonic means twitching or jerking, so when a baby has a clonic seizure, they may display repeated, uncontrolled jerking muscle movements.

During this seizure, a parent or caregiver may notice the baby is clenching or twitching parts of its body, including:

  • face
  • tongue
  • arms
  • legs
  • hands

Tonic-clonic seizures

This refers to a type of seizure that starts with stiffening (tonic phase) followed by jerking (clonic phase). Therefore, a person may observe symptoms of a tonic seizure followed by signs of a clonic seizure.

Learn more about seizures here.

According to The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, when a baby is having a seizure, it is crucial to keep them away from any hard objects to reduce the risk of injury. When the area is safe, roll them onto their side to prevent choking.

Do not put anything in the baby’s mouth or try to stop any mouth movements, such as tongue biting, as this can injure the baby.

Call 911, or take the baby to an emergency room if they are:

  • struggling to breathe
  • turning blue
  • experiencing symptoms for longer than 5 minutes

Learn what a seizure looks like here.

Seizures are the most common neurological emergency in the first 4 weeks of a baby’s life. As many as 1–5 babies per 1,000 experience a seizure. Some seizures only last a few minutes and occur once, leaving no lasting damage.

When a baby experiences frequent seizures, they must receive treatment to prevent brain damage. Brain damage occurs due to the frequent disruption of brain oxygen levels and excessive brain cell activity.

Learn more about seizures in babies here.

Sometimes, when babies show signs of a seizure, they are demonstrating healthy reflexes.

Moro reflex

The Moro reflex, or startle, reflex is a healthy part of a baby’s development. If a baby hears a loud sound or senses a sudden movement, they may throw their head back and suddenly stiffen and extend their arms. Parents or caregivers should not worry when they notice this behavior. Babies tend to outgrow this reflex at 3–6 months.

Tonic neck reflex

The tonic neck reflex is a movement where a baby looks to the side with one arm extended and the other bent; it may look like they are imitating holding a sword or firing an arrow. This primitive reflex first develops in the womb and helps the baby coordinate their eyes and control fine movement. Babies may demonstrate this reflex up to 9 months old.

However, while this reflex presents with signs such as eye-rolling, lip-smacking, and leg pedaling movements, these are normal movements, particularly in newborns. It is worth noting that this reflex does not present with characteristic features of a seizure, such as jerking or stiffening.

There are many causes of seizures in babies. Some may occur due to an event such as a head injury, while others could be symptoms of an infection or an underlying health condition.

Some causes of baby seizures include:

Viral and bacterial infections

Viral encephalitis causes brain inflammation and seizures. Common viruses, such as the flu, can cause a baby’s temperature to rise, increasing their risk of a febrile seizure. Bacterial infections, in particular, Group B strep bacteria can cause meningitis in babies, which can present with seizures.

Learn about the differences between viral and bacterial infections here.

Febrile seizures

Sometimes babies that have a fever or high body temperature may develop a febrile seizure. They typically only last a few minutes and occur most often in young children, roughly between 6 months and 5 years.

Signs of a febrile seizure include:

  • losing consciousness
  • uncontrollable shaking in the arms and legs
  • eye-rolling
  • twitching in the arms and legs

Learn more about febrile seizures here.

Hydrocephalus from brain injury

When a baby has hydrocephalus, cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) applies pressure on the brain. It is a common condition and can also occur on its own in the womb. If a doctor uses forceps or vacuum extractors to help deliver the baby, this may injure the head and cause CSF to accumulate on the brain.

Learn more about CSF here.

Cerebral palsy

Seizures are a common symptom of cerebral palsy. If a baby has cerebral palsy, they will find it difficult to control muscle. Researchers are unsure of the exact cause of cerebral palsy. However, they do know it occurs in some babies that do not receive enough oxygen.

Learn more about cerebral palsy here.

Other causes

Other causes of baby seizures include:

Learn more about epilepsy in children here.

To find out what is causing the seizure, a doctor may run an electroencephalogram (EEG). This is a test that measures electrical activity in the brain. They may do this in the emergency room or as a separate appointment.

To prepare for the EEG, a doctor places metal discs on the baby’s head that detect and record their brain’s electrical impulses.

A baby may need several EEGs, so a doctor can see what their brain activity is like between seizures.

Some conditions that induce seizures may produce healthy EEG readings, so imaging tests, such as an MRI and CT scan, may be necessary to see if any structural changes or obstructions are causing seizures.

Learn about head and brain MRIs here.

If necessary, doctors may control seizures in babies with anticonvulsant medication, including:

  • phenobarbital
  • phenytoin
  • zonisamide

If the seizures are due to a lack of oxygen, doctors may administer hypothermic treatment. This procedure cools the baby’s brain and body to prevent brain damage. They may do this if a baby experiences difficulties during birth and is not able to breathe.

Some babies may need long-term treatment to prevent seizures from recurring. A doctor needs to know the exact cause of the seizures before prescribing an effective treatment plan. For example, treatment will differ if a baby has epilepsy or is recovering from meningitis.

Learn more about meningitis in babies here.

Several types of seizures affect babies, including subtle, tonic, clonic, and febrile seizures. Some seizures are not serious and do not leave any lasting brain damage. Infection and injury are common causes of brain seizures.

Sometimes, underlying health conditions, such as cerebral palsy, can cause seizures that require long-term treatment. If a baby has a seizure and struggles to breathe or their symptoms last longer than 5 minutes, call 911 or take them to an emergency room.