Head Injury, Age 3 and Younger
Topic Overview Back to top
Almost all children will bump their heads, especially when they are babies or toddlers and are just learning to roll over, crawl, or walk. These accidents may upset you, but your anxiety is usually worse than the injury. Most head injuries in children are minor.
Head injury occurs more often in young children than adults. When compared with adults:
- Young children can't control the movement of
their heads as well as adults.
- Their heads are larger in relation to their bodies.
- Their neck muscles are not as well developed.
- Young children's legs are somewhat shorter in proportion to the rest of their bodies. This makes a child's center of gravity closer to the head than an adult's center of gravity.
- Young children are more likely to have an accident or fall as they learn new skills such as walking, running, and jumping.
Bumps, cuts, and scrapes on the head and face usually heal well and can be treated the same as injuries to other parts of the body. A superficial cut on the head often bleeds heavily because the face and scalp have many blood vessels close to the surface of the skin. This bleeding is alarming, but often the injury is not severe and you can stop the bleeding with home treatment. When bleeding does not stop with home treatment, visit a doctor because a young child can lose a large amount of blood from a deep cut on the head.
The most common serious head injuries in young children are caused by falls and abuse (inflicted head injuries), such as shaken baby syndrome. Serious head injuries may involve injuries to the brain. The more force that is involved in a head injury, the more likely it is that a serious injury to the brain has occurred. If there has been a high-energy injury to the head, there is a greater likelihood that a serious injury has occurred. When a high-energy injury occurs, it is even more important to assess the child for signs of a serious head injury.
Following an injury, it can be hard to tell the difference between a mild traumatic brain injury (concussion) and a more serious brain injury. Watch the child carefully for 24 hours after a head injury to see whether he or she develops any signs of a serious head injury.
When a head injury has occurred, look for injuries to other parts of the body. The alarm of seeing a head injury may cause you to overlook other injuries that need attention. Trouble breathing, shock, spinal injuries, and severe bleeding are all life-threatening injuries that may occur along with a head injury and require immediate medical attention. Injuries to the spine, especially the neck, must be considered when a head injury has occurred.
Many head injuries can be prevented. Use car seats, seat belts, helmets, and make your home safe from falls to prevent an injury. Establish good safety habits early so your child will continue them when he or she is older.
Check your child's symptoms to decide if and when your child should see a doctor.
Check Your Symptoms Back to top
Home Treatment Back to top
First aid for a head injury
Parents should watch their child for any problems after the injury. Home treatment can help relieve swelling and bruising of the skin or scalp and pain that occurs with a minor head injury.
- If your child had an accident, try to remain calm and speak to your child in a calm, relaxed voice. This will help reduce your child's fear and allow you to assess the situation.
- To stop any bleeding, apply firm pressure directly over the cut with a clean cloth or bandage for 15 minutes. If the cut is deep and may have penetrated the skull, emergency treatment is needed.
- Check for injuries to other parts of the body, especially if the child has fallen. The alarm from seeing a head injury may cause you to overlook other injuries that need attention.
- Apply ice or cold packs to reduce the swelling if your child will let you hold a cold pack on the injury. A "goose egg" lump may appear anyway, but ice will help ease the pain. Always keep a cloth between your child's skin and the ice pack. Do not apply ice for longer than 15 to 20 minutes at a time, and do not let your child fall asleep with the ice on his or her skin.
If your child is seen by a doctor
Be sure to follow the instructions given to you by your child's doctor. He or she will tell you what problems to look for and how closely to watch your child for the next 24 hours or longer.
Do not give any medicine, including nonprescription acetaminophen, such as Tylenol, to a child you are watching for signs of a more serious head injury unless your doctor tells you to.
Symptoms to watch for during home treatment
Call your child's doctor if any of the following occur during home treatment:
- Bleeding or swelling increases.
- Other symptoms, such as confusion, speech or vision problems, or vomiting develop.
- Symptoms become more severe or more frequent.
Prevention Back to top
Prevent head injuries
Each new learning stage for your baby requires increased attention on your part to prevent an injury. It may surprise you how fast your baby can move from one stage to the next. Being aware of your baby's abilities and what skills he or she is likely to develop next will help you prevent injuries. A nursery equipment safety checklist will help you keep your baby's environment safe.
Always be gentle with your baby. Be sure to protect your baby from a brain injury. Shaking or slapping a baby in anger can cause an injury to the brain. If a baby has been shaken or slapped, it is your responsibility to notify your doctor.
Be aware of your baby's risk of falling. Watch your baby carefully.
- Never leave your baby alone in high places, such as on a tabletop, in a crib with the sides down, or even on a bed or sofa.
- Do not leave your baby alone in any infant seat or "sitting" toy, such as a swing or jumper. Use all the safety straps provided.
Take steps to prevent falls:
- Use stair gates to block stairways. Use gates at the top and bottom of the stairs, and use the gates properly.
- Do not use baby walkers. Walkers have caused many injuries and are not safe even if the baby is watched closely.
- Keep your baby away from elevated porches, decks, and landings.
- Watch your toddler when he or she is outside. Uneven grass, sloping lawns, and hills may increase your toddler's risk of falling.
- Make your home safe from falls by removing hazards that might cause a fall.
Practice good safety habits early so your child will continue them when he or she is older:
- Place children in an approved child car seat when traveling in a motor vehicle. Follow the manufacturer's directions for installing and securing the seat.
- Have your children wear helmets whenever necessary, such as when they are passengers on a bike or riding a tricycle on their own.
- Set a good example by always using your seat belt when traveling in a motor vehicle. Wear a helmet and other protective clothing whenever you are biking, skateboarding, skiing, motorcycling, skating, kayaking, horseback riding, or rock climbing.
Preparing For Your Appointment Back to top
To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.
Questions to prepare for your appointment
You can help your doctor diagnose and treat your child's condition by being prepared to answer the following questions:
- When and how did the injury occur?
- How did your child act after the head injury?
- Did your child cry immediately after the injury?
- What are your child's main symptoms? How long has your child had symptoms?
- Has your baby had a previous head injury? Does your child have any continuing problems because of the previous injury?
- What object caused the injury? Was there or is there an object in a cut on the head?
- Was this injury intentionally caused by another person?
- What home treatment measures have you used to treat the head injury?
- If a cut or scape occurred, is your child's tetanus immunization up-to-date?
- Was the use of alcohol or drugs by a caregiver involved in your child's injury?
- Does your child have any health risks?
Credits Back to top
|Primary Medical Reviewer||William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine|
|Specialist Medical Reviewer||H. Michael O'Connor, MD - Emergency Medicine|
|Last Revised||November 16, 2012|
Last Revised: November 16, 2012
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