According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), brain injuries are the leading cause of death or disability among children in the United States. Infants in particular are at a heightened risk for brain damage as their skulls aren’t completely formed yet. This makes it easier for even the smallest accident or medical mistake to cause substantial, lifelong damage.
If your baby suffers from a brain injury, you may, understandably, have a lot of questions and concerns. The following questions are among the most commonly asked in regards to infant brain damage. But keep in mind that if you feel your infant is sick or at risk, you should consult your physician immediately.
How Do Infants Get Brain Damage?
Infant brain damage can happen during pregnancy, during delivery, or after birth. During delivery and shortly after birth, head trauma is one of the leading reasons for infant brain damage. Since brain trauma during delivery is relatively rare, it almost always occurs due to medical negligence.
Oxygen deprivation and loss of blood flow to the brain may also cause injury during delivery, especially if not caught and treated immediately. The most common reasons for oxygen deprivation include:
- Placental abruption
- Blocked airways
- Issues with the umbilical
Jaundice is also a cause of brain damage. Jaundice is often thought of as a minor disorder that will clear on its own with no severe side effects. However, if jaundice is not properly treated, kernicterus may occur. Kernicterus is a type of damage to the brain marked by extremely high levels of bilirubin. When bilirubin levels are high enough, it is toxic to the brain.
In some instances, maternal infections can also cause brain damage, specifically preeclampsia and intrauterine infections. Infants’ brains are at risk for damage before birth if the infections are left untreated.
What Are The Symptoms of Infant Brain Damage?
Brain damage symptoms will vary according to each infant as well as the severity of the injury, but some of the most typical signs and symptoms include:
Although it’s normal for infants to cry and become fussy at times, inexplicable crying, fussiness and an inability to be consoled my be a sign of brain damage. It’s important to note, however, that inexplicable crying and fussing alone, without additional symptoms, is generally not an indicator of brain damage.
Abnormal Physical Appearance
An infant with brain damage may have a protruding forehead, misshapen facial features and a deformed spine.
Sensory problems may include the inability to focus the eyes, ringing in the ears and sensitivity to light and sound.
Missed Milestones and Developmental Delays
Many infants with brain damage will miss important developmental delays such as crawling, walking, talking and sitting during the normal developmental period for their age.
What’s The Difference Between a Head Injury and a Brain Injury?
Head injuries and brain injuries aren’t always the same thing despite a common misconception. An infant can have a head injury that doesn’t necessarily lead to brain damage. For example, if a baby falls and bumps, bruises or cuts his head, this doesn’t necessarily mean that brain damage has occurred. The head injury must impact the brain in some way.
How is Brain Damage Diagnosed?
It is more difficult to diagnose infant brain damage as opposed to injuries in older children and adults. The guidelines in determining brain damage is different. The Pediatric Emergency Care Applied Research Network (PECARN) created a method that is widely used in children under two years of age.
Infants are first assessed using the Glasgow Coma Scale, a test that determines an individual’s conscious state. The scale has a score of 0 to 15, and infants who score less than 15 will more than likely undergo a CT scan. If an infant scores under a 15, it doesn’t automatically mean that they aren’t candidates for a CT scan, but there are other criteria that must be met. This criteria includes the severity of the injury, physician experience, parental recommendation and multiple physical symptoms.
A CT scan is a detailed imaging test that allows physicians to get a detailed image of the brain. CT scans often uncover bleeding in the brain, blood clots, contusions and/or swelling. Magnetic resonance imagine (MRI) may also be helpful, which creates an in-depth view of the brain via magnets and radio waves. These tests, along with an assessment of symptoms, helps physicians diagnose brain damage as well as its severity.
What Treatment Options Are Available for Infant Brain Damage?
There are a myriad of treatment options for infants who suffer from brain injuries. Treatment will depend on how severe the injury is, as well where the injury is in the brain.
Initial Stage of Treatment
If the baby is in immediate danger, initial treatment will consist of proactive measures in order to reduce swelling and bleeding, and to keep vital signs stable.
Surgery helps to close any open head wounds and to drain any bleeding. In addition, surgeons may place an intracranial monitor in the infants head in order to monitor brain activity.
Cognitive and Emotional Rehabilitation
Infants who suffer from brain damage run a much higher risk of developing a series of cognitive disabilities as their brains are still forming. Rehabilitation treatments aim to help people with cognitive and emotional problems, including:
- Attention and concentration
- Listening skills
- Emotional outbursts
- Impulse reactions
In addition to emotional and cognitive rehabilitation, infants and children may need to undergo physical rehabilitation as well. This can include physical and occupational therapy. Physical rehabilitation aims to help with problems with:
- Nutrition and health
- Physical fitness and mobility
- Sleep patterns
- Posture, balance, and strength
- Sensory-motor functions
Medication for brain damage aims to help people control pain, cognitive difficulties and emotional difficulties. When children enter school, there is a risk of attention deficit problems, hyperactivity, seizures and more. If the child has cerebral palsy, antispasmodic and anti-seizure medication can help children control seizures and spastic, uncontrollable movements. Medication for attention, focus and concentration may include methylphenidate (Ritalin) and bromocriptine (Parlodel).
In addition, as infants grow older, problems with aggression, anxiety and depression may surface. Medications such as antidepressants and carbamamazapine (Tegretol) may be prescribed.
Children with severe injuries who have paralysis or are unable to feed themselves may require an IV pump in order to administer medication and food.