A Guide to the Signs and Symptoms of Brain Tumors in Children

Gut reaction can help parents spot clues that others miss

USA, California, Girl (4-5) with headache
Noah Clayton / Getty Images

While it may seem that something as frightening as a brain tumor would be the same for children as it is for adults, think again. Brain tumors in children tend to differ in both the parts of the brain they typically affect and the way in which they are treated medically.

On the positive side, while brain tumors tend to be treated more aggressively in children, the outcome is almost always better. Moreover, brain tumors in children tend to change less than in adults, with the latter more prone to rapid growth and the faster progression of the illness.

In terms of symptoms, the difference can often be subtle, with any change in personality or motor skills related to where the tumor is found in the brain. In children, it is mainly in the lower part of the brain, including the cerebellum or brain stem.

Knowing what to look for as a parent can help you spot a problem well before it becomes a serious issue.

Factors Affecting the Signs and Symptoms of Brain Tumors in Children

The symptoms of brain tumors vary greatly depending on several key factors:

  • where in the brain the tumor is located
  • the size of the mass
  • how rapidly the tumor is growing
  • the age of the child

The brain is both delicate and complex, so even the smallest tumor can affect the body and personality in noticeable ways. With that being said, the severity of a symptom has no relationship to whether the is large or small. Small tumors can sometimes cause profound changes in person's health and behavior, while a large tumor may not even be noticed until it is accidentally spotted on an X-ray. 

Brain and spinal cord tumors account for roughly 25 percent of all childhood cancers, second only to leukemia, and can either be malignant (cancerous) or benign (non-cancerous). 

Symptoms of Brain Tumors in Children

Symptoms of a brain tumor can be vague or profound, with no set pattern or symptom. Oftentimes it is a parent's gut reaction that leads them to seek medical counsel, even when no clear signs are present. It is then that parents need to push for greater action, even when others assure them that everything is "probably" okay.

Among the most common symptoms:

  • Headaches are usually the most prominent sign of brain tumors in children. When caused by a brain tumor, headaches will typically become more frequent and increase in severity over time. Headaches that occur in the morning (especially those that awaken the child) and improve during the day are more concerning than headaches that occur later in the day. They are usually not relieved by over-the-counter medications like ibuprofen or acetaminophen. Headaches may be worsened by coughing or sneezing or when your child bends over. Nausea and vomiting may also occur, with the headaches often improving after vomiting. 
  • Seizures are also a common symptom and are often the first sign of a brain tumor. The spectrum of seizures can range from severe "tonic-clonic" seizures to milder shakes with involuntary, jerky movements. At times, a seizure may be hard to spot, with the child appearing more "out of it" than in actual distress.
  • Mental changes or fatigue can be of concern to parents who suspect that something is wrong but can't quite put their finger on it. Some parents have been known to describe changes in energy level as being "obtunded" rather than fatigued. In other words, even when the child awakens, he or she may appear less alert and less able to track conversations.
  • Cognitive decline can be apparent in children with brain tumors, who often show signs of confusion and fail to comprehend tasks that others in their age group would. Parents may notice that their child is not reaching the developmental milestones they should or may even be moving backward. This tends to be more recognizable in children who are of school age. In smaller children, everyday tasks may take longer to complete, such as putting together Legos or brushing their teeth.
  • Behavior and personality changes are common in children with brain tumors.The key component of this symptom is that there is a type of behavior that simply wasn't there before. For example, a child who is quiet may suddenly become rambunctious, whereas a louder child may become quiet. Reactions may not coincide with situations, with a child laughing at something that is not funny or getting angry for no reason at all. 
  • Loss of coordination and motor skills can be directly related to the development of a tumor, manifesting with mobility problems, loss of balance, or even trouble sitting. Other fine motor skills such as eating or writing may appear less assured or clumsy. Oftentimes, children will not notice these changes themselves, even if there is slurring or the slowing of speech.
  • Nausea and vomiting can be caused by anything, but when it is inexplicable or occurs with little warning, it can be the sign of a more serious condition. This is especially true if the child has sudden, forceful, and violent vomiting, commonly known as "projectile vomiting."
  • Blurred vision can happen if a tumor impacts the optic nerve. Brain tumors are known to cause double vision and other visual disorders, including blind spots and the obstruction of peripheral vision. A child may complain about having difficulty seeing or reading. Or you may notice the child turning or tilting his or her head to look at objects. These are clues that there is something more troubling than far- or near-sightedness.
  • Bulging fontanelle is the outward curving of the soft spot on an infant's skull where the plates have not yet closed. When a tumor increases intracranial pressure, it can cause this spot to bulge visibly, which parents will often notice by touching. While the condition can be caused by encephalitis (where fluids fill the child's cranium), it can also be the result of a developing brain mass.

    A Word From Verywell

    The most important thing you can do, if you're concerned that your child may have a brain-related disorder, is to trust your instinct as a parent. If your son or daughter has any of the above-listed symptoms, or any symptoms that cause you concern, speak with your pediatrician immediately. 

    While there are many reasons why a child might experience sudden physical or behavioral changes, early diagnosis almost always ensures greater treatment success. Don't let anyone tell you that you're "overreacting" if you sense something is wrong.

    Keep a record of all of your findings and insist on meeting with a specialist neurologist if your provider is unable to help.

    Was this page helpful?
    Article Sources