What to Do When Your Baby Bumps Their Head

As your baby starts to roll, crawl, walk, and explore their environment, bumps on the head will come with the territory. But while head bumps in babies may be common, that doesn’t mean they’re not alarming. The vast majority (90%) of head injuries in children are minor.

But what about the 10% that aren’t? Will you be able to recognize if your baby or toddler has a serious head injury and respond appropriately?

This article will discuss the common causes, signs and symptoms of mild to moderate or severe baby or toddler head injuries, what to do at home, when to call your doctor, and how to prevent these injuries.

Crying baby being soothed

Ben Bloom / Getty Images

Common Causes

Babies get bumps on their heads for a variety of reasons. Most are due to minor falls and spills that occur every day in even well-supervised households. But others are the result of more serious incidents.

Falls

Babies and toddlers are naturally curious—and quick. They also don’t have the physical coordination or neck development that older kids have. All these factors can make them prone to falling. 

There’s no shortage of ways babies can fall, and the height from which they fall doesn’t always correlate to the seriousness of the head injury. But research shows kids younger than 12 months are most apt to fall from a bed, their caretaker’s arms, or a child carrier. 

Regardless of how they tumble, falls are actually the leading cause of injury in kids. They make up 50% of nonfatal injuries in babies under the age of 1. 

The good news? Falls rarely lead to major head trauma. In one study, fewer than 3% of young children who had fallen from things like furniture or a stroller experienced a traumatic brain injury (an injury that causes damage to the brain).

Accidental Impacts

Your baby toddles into a wall, whacks their head on the side of a crib, or gets beaned in the head by a wooden block their sibling threw (you know, innocently). It’s all part of growing up.

These accidental bumps rarely cause major head injuries, such as concussions, which are injuries to the brain caused by a forceful knock on the head.

Crashes

Car accidents—where the child is a passenger or struck as a pedestrian—and bike accidents are other causes of head injuries in children. Some of these injuries may be severe, some not.

Child Abuse

There are roughly 1,300 reported cases of abusive head trauma (AHT) in babies every year in the United States. AHT occurs when a child is violently shaken, for example, or when their head is beaten against a hard object, like a wall. One-quarter of babies with AHT will die.

Signs and Symptoms

Your baby rolls off the changing table or tumbles from a counter where you have them perched. How will you know if any knock to the head is minor or major?

Mild Head Injuries

Your baby or toddler can’t tell you if they have a headache or feel dizzy, which are common symptoms of a minor head injury, such as a mild concussion. 

A concussion is a brain injury that occurs when a forceful blow to the head causes soft brain tissue to bounce against the hard skull. That shakeup can damage brain cells, usually for just a short time.

Be on the lookout for the following:

  • A bump or bruise (contusion) on their head: This may appear oval in shape and is sometimes referred to as a “goose egg.” Some bumps can be very large, but they don’t necessarily indicate a major injury.
  • Irritability
  • Vomiting
  • Lethargy
  • Sensitivity to light and noise

Moderate to Severe Head Injuries

Most head injuries to babies will not be severe, but it pays to be vigilant. Watch for:

  • Loss of consciousness, even for a second
  • Repeated vomiting
  • Large cut to the head (may require stitches)
  • Seizures
  • Paleness
  • A dilated pupil (dark circle in center of eye appears larger in one eye than other)
  • Drainage from the ears or nose (usually blood or a clear fluid)
  • Inability to suck or nurse
  • A blank stare
  • Excessive crying
  • Problems with balance
  • Changes in their sleeping and waking patterns (for example, baby is hard to wake up)
  • Bruises under the eyes and behind the ears (can signal a serious skull fracture)

When to Call 911

Call 911 immediately if your child:

  • Has a seizure
  • Loses consciousness
  • Vomits
  • Has profuse bleeding that can’t be stopped after applying firm pressure for several minutes
  • Has discharge from the ears or nose
  • Has swelling/bruising along the head (this could indicate a skull fracture)
  • Has a swollen soft spot (the soft spot, or fontanelle, is the space between the plates in your baby’s skull that fuse together as they get older)
  • Is hard to wake up
  • Does not move neck normally
  • Appears to act oddly or seems seriously hurt
  • Has a broken bone
  • Has breathing difficulties

What to Do at Home

While panic may be your first reaction when your baby takes a tumble, try to stay calm. Take these steps:

  • If your baby is alert and crying (a completely normal reaction, given that your baby is probably startled and may have some pain), you can hold your baby and try to soothe them.
  • If your child has a bump, you can apply a cold compress for about 20 minutes every three to four hours.
  • If there’s bleeding (and because the head is full of blood vessels near the surface of the skin, there may be a lot of blood), apply pressure with a clean cloth for about 15 minutes.
  • Ask your doctor for guidance on giving your baby pain relievers, such as acetaminophen.

One caveat: Don’t try to move a child who has lost consciousness. Your child may have a spine or neck injury, both of which can be made worse by improper moving.

When to Call Your Doctor

Experts recommend calling your child’s healthcare professional if your child has bumped their head and they:

  • Are under the age of 1
  • Have lost consciousness
  • Vomit more than one time
  • Seem particularly fussy
  • Are hard to wake up
  • Aren’t behaving normally—for example, your child who was walking now can’t balance themselves

Preventing Falls

Preventing falls involves using supervision and safety measures:

  • Never leave your child unattended in a bathtub or on an elevated surface such as a bed, changing table, or sofa.
  • Properly strap your baby into infant products like swings, strollers, high chairs, bouncy seats, etc.
  • Block off stairs with baby gates.
  • Don’t place a baby in a child carrier or bouncy seat on a tabletop. When your baby is in them, keep them on the floor. 
  • Keep doors to decks and balconies locked. When the door is open, use a baby gate and make sure deck/balcony furniture is not up against a railing.
  • Lock windows or use window guards. Keep furniture away from windows so kids can’t climb up to the window’s edge.
  • Use a nonslip mat in the bathtub and make sure your child remains seated while being washed. 
  • Don’t try to multitask, for example, carrying your baby and the laundry, groceries, etc., at the same time.
  • Always be mindful of your footing when you’re carrying your baby. A lot of head injuries occur when babies are accidentally dropped from their caretakers’ arms.
  • Anchor items like bookcases or dressers to the wall to prevent them from toppling, should your baby try to climb on them.

Summary

A baby can get a bump on the head due to a fall or other accident, or from an abusive situation. Mild injuries may include a lump, minor bleeding, or mild concussion. Moderate or severe injuries include concussions and head injuries. Call your doctor or seek emergency care if they have symptoms such as loss of consciousness, vomiting, are hard to wake up, or have a change in behavior.

A Word From Verywell

Because babies lack balance and physical dexterity, accidental knocks to the head are nearly inevitable as they grow and become mobile. But whenever your baby takes a tumble and hits their head, it’s understandable to worry about things like concussions and other brain injuries.

Luckily, very few head injuries in young kids are serious, and many can be prevented with proper baby-proofing. Should your baby take a bad tumble, be on the lookout for the signs and symptoms of a head injury and get medical help when appropriate.

Frequently Asked Questions

When should you worry about your baby bumping their head?

It’s unlikely your baby will get out of childhood without bumping their head at least a few times. And in most cases, your baby will be just fine. Don’t hesitate to call your child’s healthcare provider whenever you’re worried about their condition. 

Definitely reach out if your child has signs of a head injury, for example, your baby is:

  • Hard to wake up
  • Won’t nurse
  • Is inconsolable
  • Loses their balance
  • Loses consciousness
  • Vomits

What should you do if your baby bumps their head? 

If your baby seems momentarily startled but otherwise fine, you can pick your baby up and try to comfort them. If a bump develops, you can apply a cold compress. And if there’s bleeding, apply firm pressure to stop it. 

Keep an eye on your baby for the next couple of days to see if the symptoms of a head injury develop—your baby’s behavior changes, they cry excessively, they won’t nurse, they are lethargic, etc. 

Seek out medical help if your baby bumps their head and has signs of a head injury or just doesn’t seem right to you. A call to your doctor may suffice, or, depending on the severity of the injury, you may need to call 911.

How do you know if your baby has a concussion?

Most young babies aren’t verbal, so they can’t tell you if they have a headache or blurred vision, some of the hallmarks of a concussion. Instead, you’ll have to be alert to some of the other symptoms, which include:

  • Vomiting
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Crying, especially when the neck is moved
  • Irritability
  • Problems eating and sleeping

How long should you keep a baby up after hitting their head?

If your child seemed OK after the bump on the head—they settled down, stopped crying, behaved normally—there’s no reason to keep them up.

If you’re worried about your child, though, and they fall asleep, try to gently rouse them. If they wake momentarily and then get back to sleep, you can let them sleep. But if your child is hard to awaken or seems particularly drowsy or just not themselves, get medical help.

When should your child see a doctor after hitting their head?

If your child is an infant and/or they display any of the symptoms of a minor head injury—they’re lethargic, irritable, or develop a bump or bruise—call your child’s doctor.

If your child develops any of the symptoms of a major head injury—they cry excessively, lose consciousness, vomit repeatedly, have a seizure—get immediate medical help.

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Article Sources
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