Epilepsy and your toddler

From causes to the different types of seizures, we explain what you need to know about epilepsy and your child

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So what is epilepsy?

Epilepsy is the medical term for when a person has more than one seizure that’s known to have started in the brain. Everyone has electric activity in their brain all the time, but a seizure happens when there’s a burst of intense electrical activity. This causes a disruption to the way the brain normally works and means the brain’s messages become mixed up.

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What causes epilepsy?

A small number of people with epilepsy have other neurological conditions that cause the disruption in the brain. However for many people with epilepsy, it’s thought to be a genetic link.

“People find that a little bit odd to understand, because they’ll say, ‘Well there’s no one else in my family with epilepsy?’ It just means that sometimes, the genes you inherit from both parents make you more likely to develop epilepsy,” explains Kathy Bairstow, Senior Advice and Information Officer at Epilepsy Action.

What are the symptoms?

The main sign of epilepsy is a seizure, but there are over 40 different types so if you think something is unusual in the behaviour of your toddler, speak to your doctor or health visitor.

Tonic-clonic seizures

One of the most well-known types of seizures is the tonic-clonic, convulsive fits. If you’re child has a tonic-clonic seizure, often the first thing you’ll see is them fall down to the floor and their body will go rigid. When he or she is on the floor, their body’s muscles will be contracting and relaxing quite quickly, in large jerking movements.

“A child will be unconscious as this happens, but although this may look horrible to you, they’re not actually suffering. Tonic-clonic seizures are pretty common and will usually stop after a few minutes on their own accord and then you’re child will be really, really tired,” explains Kathy.

The first time your child has a tonic-clonic seizure, you’ll most likely ring an ambulance and get them taken to the hospital, but according to Kathy this can sometimes be a good thing.

“Often there will be no warning before a seizure and if it’s your child’s first seizure, you wouldn’t be looking out for anything anyway because you wouldn’t know your child is going to have an epileptic seizure. In hospital, your child will be checked over and then referred to an epileptic specialist, for tests and scans.

“Occasionally, that first seizure may be the sign of a more serious condition, such as meningitis,” says Kathy.

Once your child has been assessed, the best thing to do after your child has a tonic-clonic seizure is to put them into the recovery position, and let them sleep. After they wake up they’re going to feel pretty grotty, because after all these muscles that have been contracting and relaxing are muscles that you might not use in everyday life.

“It’s almost like doing a marathon without preparing first. Your child’s’ limbs might feel really sore and they might have a really bad headache. Some might feel fine after a couple of hours, but others might need all day to get over it. As mentioned before, the best thing is to let them sleep and get over it because that way they’ll recover quicker,” says expert Kathy.

Absences

Absences are a less known type of seizure as they can be really brief and hard to spot. Your child may just look as if they’re staring and then suddenly come back to normal, or you might find that you’re child is a little bit remote a lot of the day. This could mean that they’re having continuous absences or very frequent absences.

“You’ve got to imagine it’s like watching a television programme, and then somebody switches the channels and then about a second later switches back. That’s how brief an absence is,” says Kathy.

“It’s best to remember that every child is different – some children are always on the go, while others are daydreamers. But if you’re child is someone who’s always active and then starts to get a bit dreamy or is unaware of what’s going on around them, it could mean they are experiencing absences,”

If you notice something that you think is unusual for your child, that’s when you should consider getting some more advice. Kathy advises keeping a note of what time of day your child’s confusion happens to see if there is a pattern emerging.

“Some GPs aren’t as clued up on absences and other subtle seizures so it might be best to talk to one of our necessary advisers first. We won’t be able to diagnose your child but we can give you pointers on what to talk to the doctor about,” says Kathy.

  • Sleep seizures

Some children may have seizures during the night, which are known as sleep seizures. You may find out if you’re child starts crying as the seizure starts or maybe if the bed rocks against the wall during a tonic-clonic seizure.

“Often it’s only when there’s another child in the same room that you find out. If you discover your child is having sleep seizures, see your doctor,” advises Kathy. 

If your child is diagnosed with epilepsy, what treatment is available?

There are a whole range of different medicines for different seizure types. It’s not just children who have uncomfortable tonic-clonic seizures who need medicines.

Your doctor will prescribe the anti-epilepsy medication that is best for your child and for the majority of children this is all that is needed to control, or in some cases stop, their seizures.

“Some children, who’ve had epilepsy as a youngster, may grow out of it as they become more mature,” says Kathy.

  • Ketogenic Diet

Another treatment available for children with epilepsy is the ketogenic diet, but this is a diet that must be supervised by a specialist and a specialist nutritionist.

“A ketogenic diet is designed specially for each individual child and it must be supervised properly. It involves making sure that a child has enough nutrition for the body to grow, but by having a very low number of carbohydrates. The result of this is that the body makes ketoes, which cause seizures to happen less often,” explains epilepsy expert Kathy.

Is there anyway you can protect your toddler when he or she is having a seizure?

While anti-epilepsy medication can control epilepsy, sometimes your child’s seizures may be triggered by stress or over-tiredness.

To protect your toddler when he or she is having a seizure, make sure that their head isn’t banging on anything hard, like a wall. Put your hands under their head or against the wall, and let the seizure stop on its own accord, advises Kathy.

“Once the seizure has finished, you need to get them on their side and make sure their airways are open so once they come around they’re in a safe position,” says Kathy.

If you’re child is having sleep seizures, make sure their bed has a bed guard, so it depends really what the age of your child is. If your child is sleeping in a bed, make sure their mattress is as low as possible and that there are no sharp or hard surfaces around.

“Put cushions or pillows on the floor so if they do fall out they’re not going to hurt themselves,” says Kathy.

Some children might benefit from having a mattress on the floor, rather than on the bed, so that if they do fall out they don’t have far to fall.

If you’re child has absence seizures, there’s no real safety needed.

“Unfortunately, you can’t make an environment 100% safe. Yes a child could fall down the stairs when they’re having a seizure, but any child could fall down the stairs. As a mum or dad, you’ve probably already put in place the appropriate safety measures around your house, for example, you’d probably still have baby gates on the stairs regardless of whether your toddler has epilepsy or not,” says Kathy.

Further Information

If you are a woman with epilepsy and are planning to have a baby, please read our guides to Epilepsy and trying for a baby and Epilepsy and Pregnancy

If your child has epilepsy and is nearing school age, please read our guide to Epilepsy and your Schoolchild

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For more advice or support on all things epilepsy, please call Epilepsy Action’s free helpline on 0808 800 5050 or visit www.epilepsy.org.uk

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