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4 things every parent needs to know about head injuries in children
You’d do anything to keep your child safe. Follow these tips to protect them from falls and head injuries.
This much we know: Kids are going to be kids. They’re going to run around and play. They’re going to go biking and sliding and seesawing. And they’re going to fall.
That part about kids falling can be scary for them. And for you as a parent too. If your child falls and scrapes their knee, you can usually handle it with a small bandage. But it can be even more scary if they fall and hit their head.
It’s not just falling. Kids can also hit their heads by running into things or playing sports.
Head injuries in children happen more often than you might think. Emergency rooms see 564,000 kids with bumped heads each year.1 Sports injuries and car accidents are other common causes of childhood head injuries.
You can’t be there to prevent every fall or injury. But you can learn how to keep your kids safe. And if they do get a head injury, it’s important that you know what to do. Here are the 4 top facts you need to know when you’re caring for a child.
Fact #1: There are different types of head injuries
You may hear people use the terms “head injury,” “brain injury” and “concussion.” They’re quite a bit different. Here’s how to tell the difference:
- Head injury. This is any injury that affects your head, skull, brain or blood vessels. That’s according to John Good, MD. He’s a pediatrics specialist with Optum Health, in Rio Rancho, New Mexico.
- Traumatic brain injury (TBI). This is a type of brain injury caused by outside force, such as a forceful bump, blow or jolt to the head or body. That could be from a fall or a car accident, for example. It could also be caused by an object piercing the skull.2
- Concussion. A concussion is a mild traumatic brain injury. It’s an injury to the brain itself, notes Dr. Good. “It’s usually from direct trauma,” he says. “Or it’s caused by shaking the brain back in forth inside of the skull.”
Fact #2: You should call your child’s doctor if they bump their head
Let’s say you’re at the playground with your preschooler. She trips and hits her forehead. She’s upset, but she seems fine after you comfort her. What do you do?
It’s a good idea to check in with your child’s doctor just in case.3 Most head bumps in kids don’t cause serious problems. But the doctor will want details about the injury and how your child is feeling.
“When I’m on call, I hear from a worried parent almost every night,” says Dr. Good. Your doctor might suggest you use a cold compress if there’s a bruise, or a bandage if there’s a small cut.
And they’ll have you keep an eye on your child for a period of time. That’s to make sure your child’s behavior doesn’t change. A change in behavior could include a shift in your child’s personality, or your child acting more (or less) emotional than usual.
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Fact #3: Signs of a brain injury can show up hours later
Let’s say your child knocked heads with another kid at soccer. He felt fine after the game. But later that afternoon, he complains that he has a headache.
That might be a sign of something more serious. That’s because not all symptoms of brain injuries show up right away.
Some symptoms may take hours or even days to show up. And some might not seem like symptoms at all and can be easy to overlook. Depending on your child’s age, they might not be able to tell you what’s wrong.
You’ll want to watch for signs of a concussion, like:2,3,4
- Changes in ability to pay attention
- Changes in balance or walking
- Changes in eating habits
- Changes in sleep habits
- Changes in toilet habits
- Crying a lot or being more fussy than usual (in little kids)
- Complaints that they’re not feeling “right”
- No interest in their favorite toy or activity
- Sensitivity to light or noise
In rare cases, your child might have worse symptoms. Call 911 if they lose consciousness, have a seizure or start vomiting.
Fact #4: Parents can take steps to keep their kids safe
You can’t keep your child safe from every fall or accident. But you can take steps to keep them safe. Here are some important ways to protect their head and their brain:
Use car seats and booster seats. Use age- and size-appropriate car seats and booster seats. It can help protect them from head or brain injuries. All kids should ride in the rear seat until age 13.5 Keep these points in mind:
- Infants and young toddlers should ride in a rear-facing seat with a harness. They should face backward until they reach the weight or height suggested by the car seat company. That’s usually around age 2.
- When they’ve outgrown the rear-facing position, place them in a front-facing seat with a harness.
- School-age kids should ride in a booster seat until they are 8 to 12 years old.
- Older children should use a seatbelt.
Make sure kids wear helmets. A helmet can help keep your child safe from a head injury or brain injury. Your child should always wear a helmet when they ride a bike, scooter or skateboard. Check that the helmet fits snugly and does not slide around on their head.6
Make helmets a habit from the time your child first learns to ride a scooter or bike. “Parents need to be good role models as well,” says Dr. Good. Kids don’t miss much. They may not want to wear a helmet if their parents aren’t wearing one.
Kids should also wear helmets when they ski, snowboard or go sledding. And helmets are important when they play certain team sports such as football, hockey, softball and baseball.
Childproof your home. If you have a young child, take steps to childproof your home to protect against falls. Make sure windows aren’t easily opened. Place safety gates at the tops of stairs. Use corner and edge bumpers on coffee tables and other low furniture. Keep one hand on your child on the changing table so they don’t fall.
And don’t let them jump on their bed. Will they be happy about that? Probably not. But you’ll know you’re keeping them safe.
- Brain Injury Association of America. Incidence of brain injury in children. Copyright 2023. Accessed February 7, 2023.
- National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Traumatic brain injury (TBI). Last revised February 7, 2023. Accessed February 8, 2023.
- American Academy of Pediatrics. Head injury in children. Last updated February 2021. Accessed February 8, 2023.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Concussion signs and symptoms. Last revised February 12, 2019. Accessed January 19, 2023.
- American Academy of Pediatrics. Car seats: Information for families. Last updated January 2023. Accessed February 10, 2023.
- American Academy of Pediatrics. Bike helmets for kids: Parent FAQs. Last updated August 2022. Accessed February 10, 2023.
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