Handling Toddler Head Injuries

I was just a step behind my 22-month-old son, Carter, when his foot slipped and he tumbled down three stairs landing head first on our hard living room floor. Before he could begin to cry and while I was rushing to pick him up, a nasty goose egg and bruise had started to form on the side of his forehead. The unsightly knot hung around for a week, but our doctor’s prognosis was good. Carter, like most kids who fall, would be just fine.

If it feels like your kiddo is constantly taking a tumble, you’re not alone. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), falls are the leading cause of nonfatal injuries in kids of all ages, and they’re the number-one cause of head injuries in those under age nine. Toddlers are the most frequent victims of head injuries, mostly due to their lack of balance. Most of these falls are minor, but others can be more serious – even causing a concussion.

Concussions are no joke, especially for growing brains. Many people think of a concussion as just a bump to the head and assume everything is going to be okay. When in fact, a concussion is technically a traumatic brain injury, though the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says that this doesn’t necessarily mean that there will be permanent damage. The AAP does say that even if a bump to the head seems mild, parents should watch their child closely.

What to Look For

As soon as the accident occurs, and up to a week after, it is crucial to watch for confused speech, lethargy, blurred or double vision, difficulty with balance or walking, vomiting, headaches, and pupils that are larger than normal or of unequal size. If your child is older, ask him whether he feels nauseated or hears ringing in his ears.

With babies who aren’t yet walking or talking, danger signs include bulges at the fontanelles (the soft spots on the front and back of the skull), vomiting, lethargy, difficulty feeding, and high-pitched crying. Head injuries can even leave a dent in the soft skull of young babies. If you notice any of these conditions, call your pediatrician. Of course, head straight to the emergency room should your child lose consciousness.

Getting a Diagnosis

Signs of concussion are the first thing doctors look for when a child suffers a bump to the head. According to the AAP, even the most mild form of head trauma can lead to fatigue and repeated headache that lasts for days beyond the injury’s occurrence. More serious ones will often cause a child to have sleeping trouble and behavior issues and can affect her ability to concentrate on schoolwork. So after asking whether the injury left the child dazed or knocked out, a physician will perform a basic neurological exam to check vision, hearing, reflexes and balance.

Safety Strategies

We all know that despite our strongest efforts, we can’t watch our kids every moment of the day. But we can use basic safety strategies. Insist that your children wear a helmet when bike riding, scootering, skating, skiing, skateboarding and sledding. Keep a close eye on young children who are just beginning to walk or crawl, and be vigilant about putting safety gates across open stairways. Install non-skid mats in bathtubs and guards on windows.

If your child takes a tumble, try to keep your emotions in check. It can mean the difference between a quick recovery and long-term problems. Pay attention to the details of the injury because you’ll need to share that info with the doctor. And if he has to go to the hospital, you’ll be able to relate to the emergency room physician how far your child fell, how the accident happened, and other crucial details that will help the doctor make good treatment decisions. Hopefully, though, you end up with nothing more than a nasty knot and lessons learned.

Categories: Little Ones