Signs of a Concussion in Toddlers

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A concussion can be caused by a bump or jolt to the head directly. Another way a concussion can occur is if the body is hit hard and the head and brain move rapidly back and forth.

When a concussion happens, it can cause chemical changes in the brain. Depending on the severity, it can also damage brain cells.

When a toddler experiences a concussion, it is difficult to diagnose because they can’t clearly communicate how they are feeling. That’s why it is important to look for behavior patterns and contact a healthcare provider.

This article discusses the causes and signs of concussion in a toddler.

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Are Concussions Different in Toddlers Than Older Children and Adults?

When a toddler has a concussion, it is different than in older children and adults. For toddlers, this is because:

  • The skull is softer.
  • Their heads are larger in relation to their bodies.
  • Their neck muscles are not well developed for support.
  • In addition, a toddler’s bones are not fully developed, and they have less control of movements.

Causes

The cause of a concussion varies. Since toddlers are explorers and are still wobbly on their feet, causes of concussion can include:

  • A fall
  • Bump on the head
  • Head contact with a sharp corner

In the event that they are dropped as someone picks them up, this could possibly lead to a concussion, too.

Other causes for a concussion can occur by a hit to the body where it may shake the brain back and forth. Although the head wasn’t hit physically, it can be affected by the impact of the hit to the body.

Toddlers can’t communicate pain like older children typically can, so it is important to gather as much information as possible to determine where and how the injury happened.

Common Signs

When a child has a concussion, the symptoms don’t always show up right away. They typically develop within 24 to 72 hours after the injury.

Most toddlers don’t have the ability to clearly communicate what they are feeling, so they will most likely reveal their symptoms through crying, frustration, or irritability. These actions may appear later and last longer. It is important to watch the toddler closely for any changes in behavior.

Headache

When a child has a concussion, a headache is a symptom.

For toddlers, since it is difficult for them to verbalize their pain, it is important to look at signs in behavior and any changes. The child may cry excessively, want to cuddle more, put their head down, or hold their head frequently due to the pain they are experiencing.

Appearing Dazed 

If a toddler seems slow to respond or disengaged in their regular activity, it is important to watch this behavior very closely. Another symptom is looking spaced out or having glassy eyes. The child may also seem tired or lethargic.

Listless

When a child is listless, they may feel heavier or experience the feeling of heaviness when they are being carried while asleep.

The child will also be less interested in playing or exploring. Most toddlers are curious and like to touch and pick up objects. With a concussion, there is less interest and engagement in the activities they would normally enjoy.

Irritability and Crying

There are normal situations and reasons as to why a toddler cries. A parent or guardian usually understands the reasons. Typically, it is due to hunger, changes in routine, tiredness, and/or new surroundings.

A concussion may cause excessive irritability and crying.

Loss of Balance

Toddlers are wobbly and a bit unsteady at times. As they develop walking skills, strength in the legs generally gets better.

With a concussion, look for additional signs that the toddler is not able to walk well or they don’t move as they normally do. It is natural for a toddler to fall due to the proportion of the legs. If there are obvious reasons to worry or they are not moving as they normally do, there may be an issue.

Change in Sleeping

Depending on the toddler, changes in sleep can range from:

  • Having trouble falling asleep
  • Sleeping more than usual
  • Not sleeping as much

Other symptoms include difficulty waking up, or falling asleep quickly after waking up after hours of sleep.

Seizures

If there is a seizure after a fall or hit that affects the head, call 911, seek emergency care, and contact your doctor immediately.

Uneven or Dilated Pupils

The pupils are typically dilated when the fight-or-flight response is triggered. Dilated pupils are not a clear sign of a concussion. However, a sign of structural brain injury is one pupil being more dilated than the other. This requires immediate emergency attention.

Refusal to Nurse or Eat

A toddler may delay their natural ability to nurse or eat after a head injury. It is important to watch their eating habits after the injury. If a concussion is diagnosed, ask your doctor for the proper recommendations regarding eating and nursing.

When to Contact a Healthcare Provider

If a toddler experiences a head injury, it is important to contact a healthcare provider. Many times, the symptoms of a concussion are noticeable within 24 to 72 hours after the injury occurs. If any of the following symptoms occur, go to the emergency room right away:

  • Seizure
  • Confusion
  • Vomiting
  • Bleeding
  • Unresponsiveness (you can’t wake your child)
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Severe headache, including a headache that doesn’t improve
  • Blurred vision
  • Trouble walking

Frequently Asked Questions

Is it okay to let my toddler sleep after they hit their head?

If the toddler hits their head and it is severe, take them to the emergency room. If not severe, typically it is okay for them to go to sleep, but keep an eye out for sleep patterns and movements while they sleep. If the toddler is asleep and they can’t be wakened, take them to the emergency room.

Can a toddler get a concussion without hitting their head?

A concussion can occur by a hit to the body where it may shake the brain back and forth. Although the head wasn’t hit physically, it can be affected by the impact of the hit to the body.

If the brain hits the skull, nerves inside the brain can be injured due to torn blood vessels. This can also cause a concussion.

How long does it take to show signs of concussion after a toddler hits their head?

Signs of a concussion are noticeable within 24 to 72 hours.

A Word From Verywell

A concussion is a serious injury. It is important to contact a healthcare provider right away if your toddler has a fall or experienced an injury that could lead to a concussion. They can help you with the proper treatment and educate you on preventative measures for the health and safety of your child.

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Article Sources
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  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Caring for your child’s concussion.

  7. University of Michigan. 8 common misconceptions about concussions. Updated May 17, 2021.