Jennifer Kwong* was changing Sophie’s* diaper when she looked away to grab a sleeper. In that split second, the nine-month-old wriggled off her change table and landed, head first, on the floor.
“There were no signs of injury, apart from her crying, but since she couldn’t tell me how she felt, I was scared,” says the Moncton, NB, mom.“I rushed her to the doctor. It turned out she was fine, but I was overcome with guilt for letting it happen.”
Many parents have felt the same sense of panic. But most of the time, if a baby hits her head, she’ll be unharmed, except for perhaps a bruise or goose egg that can be treated with infant Tylenol and an ice pack. So how can parents know if it might be something more serious, like a mild brain injury, commonly called a concussion, which disrupts normal levels of brain function?
Watch for symptoms
Any loss of consciousness or deformity of the skull after a baby hits her head requires immediate medical attention, says Ash Singhal, a paediatric neurosurgeon at the BC Children’s Hospital in Vancouver. “But if a baby is awake, alert and behaving normally, it’s not concerning.” He advises parents to be watchful for a day or two. “If you notice she’s acting different—vomiting, drowsy, irritable, eating less, or having trouble using a part of her body, go to the ER.” There’s no need to keep your baby awake if she isn’t displaying these symptoms.
When not to worry
Remember that it’s not unusual for a baby to react to stress or injury by feeling a little sleepy, says Bruce Minnes, a paediatric emergency-medicine physician at The hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. “Persistent drowsiness may be a sign of something more serious, but do allow your baby to sleep—it will help her feel better.” Worried parents can check in once or twice. “If your baby is rousable and responsive, let her go back to sleep. If she’s not rousable, get her assessed in the ER.” An ER visit will include a few hours of observation. If the doctors are concerned about brain swelling or bleeding, an X-ray or scan may help determine next steps.
It doesn’t mean you’re bad parents
Singhal reassures parents that mild brain injuries tend to heal well on their own, without future implications. “A lot of families are beside themselves when they come in,” he says. “It doesn’t mean you’re bad parents. Be vigilant about it in the future, but otherwise, let it go and move on.”
*Name changed by request.
This article was originally published in May 2012.