Neonatal seizures can be very difficult to recognize. This page contains general information about seizures, but is not meant to be used as a diagnostic tool. Also, we cannot provide medical advice. We are not doctors, and our live chat service should not be used for medical emergencies.
If you think that your child is currently having or has recently had a seizure for the first time, please call 911 for immediate medical attention. Infant seizures are serious conditions and require the care of a medical professional.
One of the most common signs that a baby might have hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy (HIE) is the presence of seizures after birth. These can cause involuntary jerking motions and visible symptoms, but in some cases, the signs are very subtle. The best (and sometimes only) way to detect a baby having a seizure is using an EEG monitor to look for abnormal electrical activity in the brain. About half of newborn seizures are subtle seizures, which can be hard to see. An additional quarter of infant seizures are clonic seizures, marked by a slow rhythmic jerking or twitching of one body part. 5% of infants have tonic seizures, marked by sustained contractions, sometimes accompanied by rolling eyes and apnea. The most severe type of seizures is myoclonic, because myoclonic seizures indicate very severe brain damage. These are marked by very fast twitching or jerking, and are most often found in premature babies.
Seizures can actually worsen brain damage in cases of hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy.
What Do Seizures Look Like in a Baby?
Seizures may manifest differently in different babies. In addition to jerking or twitching motions, a baby having a seizure can show the following signs (among others):
- Apnea (a time period during which they stop breathing)
- Repetitive movements of the face
- “Bicycling,” which appears as pedaling motions of the feet
- Stiff or tight muscles groups
- Abnormal bending or stretching of the arms or legs
Recognizing the Risk Factors for Seizure Activity
Because seizures are associated with cognitive difficulties and cerebral palsy, recognizing when they occur is crucial to making sure your child gets proper treatment. While the diagnosis of seizures is carried out by medical professionals using tests such as EEGs, MRIs, and CT scans, parents can learn about when seizures are more likely to occur and bring up any concerns they may have.
If a baby is born not breathing, has a low APGAR score, or needs to go to the NICU after delivery, these are signs that the child is at risk for seizures. The risk factors for seizures are very similar to the risk factors for hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy; please see our page on risk factors for HIE here.
Infant Seizures: Next Steps
If you see signs of seizure in your infant, you should call 911 immediately, especially if it is their first seizure. If they get diagnosed with a seizure disorder and have frequent episodes, you should discuss with your doctor how to respond to and treat your child’s seizures. Also, during a seizure, make sure that your infant is away from anything that could cause injury, such as hard objects or something that could get stuck in their mouth. For more detailed tips on seizure first aid, click here.
Once you get to the hospital and the baby is examined, your doctor may prescribe medications or recommend other means of controlling/preventing future seizures.
If your child is diagnosed with a seizure disorder, there are many resources that can help you. The Epilepsy Foundation has a lot of useful information on caring for a child with frequent seizures, as well as resources for all ages – everything from summer camps for kids with epilepsy to driving safety. They have a toll-free helpline in both English (1-800-332-1000) and Spanish (1-866-748-8008).
For more information on infant seizures and how to care for a child with a seizure disorder, check out our related resources (below).