Signs of Concussion in Children: When to Call the Doctor

Medically reviewed by Karen Richardson Gill, MD on March 9, 2016Written by Chaunie Brusie, RN, BSN

You may think that concussions are only something that can happen on the football field or in older children. Concussions can actually happen at any age and to both girls and boys.

In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics notes that there are actually more concussions in girls' sports. Moral of the story? It's important to know the signs and symptoms of a concussion, how to prevent concussions from happening, when it's time to take your child to the doctor, and how to treat a concussion.

What Is a Concussion?

A concussion is an injury to the brain that causes the brain to actually stop working normally for a temporary or permanent time.

Concussions are usually caused by some type of trauma to the head, like falling on the head or getting into a car accident. Concussions are especially dangerous in young children because they may not be able to tell you how they are feeling. You’ll need to watch them carefully for any signs and symptoms.

And to make things even more confusing, sometimes concussion symptoms don't show up right away after an injury. The signs and symptoms may appear hours or even days after the injury.

The signs of a concussion are generally the same for any age. But for babies, toddlers, and older children, you may have to think a little differently when trying to determine if they have a concussion.

Signs of a Concussion in Babies

In young babies, signs of a concussion can include:

  • crying when you move the baby's head
  • irritability
  • interruption in the baby's sleeping habits, either sleeping more or less
  • vomiting
  • bump or bruise on the head

Signs of a Concussion in Toddlers

A toddler may be able to indicate when their head hurts and be more vocal about symptoms, which can include:

  • headache
  • nausea or vomiting
  • behavior changes
  • sleep changes — more or less sleeping
  • excessive crying
  • loss of interest in playing or doing their favorite activities

Signs of a Concussion in Older Children (Ages 2+)

Children older than 2 years may show more behavioral changes, such as:

  • dizziness or balance problems
  • double or blurry vision
  • sensitivity to light
  • sensitivity to noise
  • looking like they are daydreaming
  • trouble concentrating
  • trouble remembering
  • confused or forgetful about recent events
  • slow to answer questions
  • changes in mood — irritable, sad, emotional, nervous
  • drowsiness
  • change in sleep patterns
  • difficulty sleeping

When to Call the Doctor

What happens if you see your child fall on their head or otherwise get injured? How do you know when you need to take them to the doctor?

The most important thing you can do is watch your child very carefully. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is my child acting normally?
  • Are they acting more drowsy than normal?
  • Has their behavior changed?

If your child is awake, active, and doesn’t seem to be acting any different after a mild bump to the head, your child is most likely fine.

It's always a good idea, of course, to get your child checked out. You may not have to rush to the ER for a small bump on the head without any symptoms. However, if your child is showing any signs of a concussion, especially if they’re vomiting, have lost consciousness for more than a minute or two, are difficult to wake up, or have a seizure, you will need to get medical attention right away. It’s OK to let your child nap if they are sleepy after bumping their head, but monitor them very carefully after they wake up.

While no test can officially diagnose a concussion, a CT or MRI may occasionally be used to get a picture of the brain if the doctor suspects bleeding. If you see that your child has unequal or larger than normal pupils (the small black spots in the eyes) after a head injury, this could indicate swelling around the brain and is a medical emergency.

Treatment for a Concussion

The only treatment for a concussion is rest. The brain needs lots and lots of rest to heal from a concussion, and full recovery can take months or even a year, depending on how bad the concussion was.

The most important thing you need to know about healing from a concussion is that the brain actually needs rest from both mental and physical activity. Don't allow your child to use screens of any kind since those actually overstimulate and excite the brain. That means no TV, tablets, music, or smartphones.

Sleep is actually very healing for the brain, so encourage quiet time, naps, and early bedtimes to allow the brain as much time as possible to heal. It's also extremely important to prevent another concussion or head injury because repeated concussions can cause permanent damage to the brain.

If your child shows any signs of regression like grogginess, confusion, or large mood swings, you should make an appointment with the doctor for a checkup. 

Chaunie Brusie
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