Provides overview of head injuries in those age 3 and younger. Offers tool to help you check symptoms and decide when to see doctor. Discusses emergency symptoms and when to seek care. Offers prevention tips.
Head Injury, Age 3 and Younger
Almost all children will bump their heads, especially when they are
babies or toddlers and are just learning to roll over, crawl, or walk. These
accidents may upset you, but your anxiety is usually worse than the injury.
Most head injuries in children are minor.
Head injury occurs more
often in young children than adults. When compared with adults:
Young children can't control the movement of
their heads as well as adults.
Their heads are larger in relation to their
Their neck muscles are not as well developed.
Young children's legs are somewhat shorter in
proportion to the rest of their bodies. This makes a child's center of gravity
closer to the head than an adult's center of gravity.
children are more likely to have an accident or fall as they learn new skills
such as walking, running, and jumping.
Bumps, cuts, and scrapes on the head and face usually heal
well and can be treated the same as injuries to other parts of the body. A
superficial cut on the head often bleeds heavily because the face and scalp
have many blood vessels close to the surface of the skin. This bleeding is
alarming, but often the injury is not severe and you can stop the bleeding with
home treatment. When bleeding does not stop with home treatment, visit
a doctor because a young child can lose a large amount of blood from a deep cut
on the head.
The most common serious head injuries in young
children are caused by falls and abuse (inflicted head injuries), such as shaken baby syndrome. Serious head
injuries may involve injuries to the brain. The more force that is involved in
a head injury, the more likely it is that a serious injury to the brain has
occurred. If there has been a
high-energy injury to the head, there is a greater
likelihood that a serious injury has occurred. When a high-energy injury
occurs, it is even more important to assess the child for
signs of a serious head injury.
Following an injury, it can be hard to tell the difference between a
mild traumatic brain injury (concussion) and a more serious brain
injury. Watch the child carefully for 24 hours after a head injury to see
whether he or she develops any signs of a serious head injury.
When a head injury has occurred, look for injuries to other parts of the
body. The alarm of seeing a head injury may cause you to overlook other
injuries that need attention. Trouble breathing, shock, spinal injuries, and
severe bleeding are all life-threatening injuries that may occur along with a
head injury and require immediate medical attention.
Injuries to the spine, especially the neck, must be
considered when a head injury has occurred.
Many head injuries can
be prevented. Use car seats, seat belts, helmets, and
make your home safe from falls to prevent an injury. Establish good safety
habits early so your child will continue them when he or she is older.
Do not move the person unless there is an immediate threat to the person's life, such as
a fire. If you have to move the person, keep the head and neck supported and in
a straight line at all times. If the person has had a diving accident and is
still in the water, float the person face up in the water.
Babies' heads are easily damaged, and their neck muscles are
not strong enough to control the movement of the head. Shaking or throwing a baby can cause the head to jerk back and forth. This can
make the skull hit the brain with force, causing brain damage, serious vision
problems, or even death.
Shock is a life-threatening condition that may occur quickly
after a sudden illness or injury.
Symptoms of shock in a child may include:
Being very sleepy or hard
to wake up.
Not responding when being touched or talked to.
Breathing much faster than usual.
The child may not know where he or she is.
Seek Care Today
Based on your answers, you may need care soon. The
problem probably will not get better without medical care.
Call your doctor today to discuss the symptoms
and arrange for care.
If you cannot reach your doctor or you don't
have one, seek care today.
If it is evening, watch the symptoms and
seek care in the morning.
Parents should watch their child for any problems after the injury. Home treatment can
help relieve swelling and bruising of the skin or scalp and pain that occurs
with a minor head injury.
If your child had an accident, try to remain
calm and speak to your child in a calm, relaxed voice. This will help reduce
your child's fear and allow you to assess the situation.
To stop any bleeding, apply firm pressure directly over the cut
with a clean cloth or bandage for 15 minutes. If the cut is deep and may have penetrated the skull,
emergency treatment is needed.
Check for injuries to other parts of
the body, especially if the child has fallen. The alarm from seeing a head
injury may cause you to overlook other injuries that need
ice or cold packs to reduce the swelling if your child will let you hold a cold pack on the injury. A "goose egg" lump may appear
anyway, but ice will help ease the pain. Always keep a cloth between your
child's skin and the ice pack. Do not apply ice for longer than 15 to 20
minutes at a time, and do not let your child fall asleep with the ice on his or
If your child is seen by a doctor
Be sure to follow
the instructions given to you by your child's doctor. He or she will tell you what problems to look for and how closely to watch your child for the next 24 hours or longer.
Do not give any medicine, including
acetaminophen, such as Tylenol, to a child
you are watching for signs of a more serious head injury unless your doctor
tells you to.
New nausea or vomiting develops or nausea or vomiting becomes worse.
Tingling, weakness, or numbness develops in any part of the body.
Trouble walking develops.
Confusion or not acting normally develops.
Bleeding or swelling increases.
Symptoms become more severe or more frequent.
Prevent head injuries
Each new learning stage for your baby
requires increased attention on your part to prevent an injury. It may surprise
you how fast your baby can move from one stage to the next. Being aware of your
baby's abilities and what skills he or she is likely to develop next will help
you prevent injuries. A nursery equipment safety checklist will help you keep your baby's environment safe.
Always be gentle with your baby. Be sure to protect your baby from a brain injury.
Shaking or slapping a baby in anger can cause an
injury to the brain. If a baby has been shaken or slapped, it is your
responsibility to notify your doctor.
Be aware of your baby's risk
of falling. Watch your baby carefully.
Never leave your baby alone in high places, such
as on a tabletop, in a crib with the sides down, or even on a bed or
Do not leave your baby alone in any infant seat or "sitting"
toy, such as a swing or jumper. Use all the safety straps provided.
Take steps to prevent falls:
stair gates to block stairways. Use gates at the top
and bottom of the stairs, and use the gates properly.
Do not use
baby walkers. Walkers have caused many injuries and are not safe even if the
baby is watched closely.
Keep your baby away from elevated porches,
decks, and landings.
Watch your toddler when he or she is outside.
Uneven grass, sloping lawns, and hills may increase your toddler's risk of
Practice good safety habits early so your child will continue
them when he or she is older:
Place children in an approved
child car seat when traveling in a motor vehicle.
Follow the manufacturer's directions for installing and securing the
Have your children wear helmets whenever necessary, such as
when they are passengers on a bike or riding a tricycle on their
Set a good example by always using your seat belt when
traveling in a motor vehicle. Wear a helmet and other protective clothing
whenever you are biking, skateboarding, skiing, motorcycling, skating,
kayaking, horseback riding, or rock climbing.
How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.