What to do if your child has a febrile convulsion
Febrile convulsions in young children are traumatic - and more common than you'd think. Here, first-aid trainer Michelle Fiddian explains why you need to be alert, not alarmed.
A mother is taking care of her six-month-old daughter, who has just had her immunisation injections. The baby is unusually grumpy. The mother takes her baby's temperature, which confirms that her baby has a fever. The thermometer felt uncomfortable to the baby and she is now crying nonstop. The mother tries to settle her daughter by feeding her, however the baby refuses to feed. In this instance the mother does what most mothers would do: she tries to comfort her baby by holding her close to her body.
Suddenly, her baby stops crying. Initially, the mother breathes a sigh of relief. This relief, however, suddenly turns to alarm at the highest level when the mother realises that her little baby's eyes have rolled back in her head and she is shaking - she's having a fit! The mother panics and does what all inexperienced mothers probably would do, which is to hold her closer in an attempt to try to stop her from shaking.
By now the mother is in total panic mode. Not knowing what to do next, she runs next door to her neighbour. She is screaming and her little baby is convulsing. The absolute panic that the mother is experiencing stems from her terror that her child is going to die right here in her arms - or at the very least, suffer brain damage. This scenario depicts a nerve-racking and traumatic experience, doesn't it?
Actually, it's extremely alarming how common a scenario this is. Unfortunately, parents and carers know relatively little about the phenomenon that affects around one-third of all children - the febrile convulsion (a fit as a result of a fever).
It's important to realise that even a slight amount of knowledge about febrile convulsions will immediately help to put a parent's mind at ease. Knowledge is power, and information about this phenomenon can help a parent to handle the situation calmly.
What Causes Them?
Febrile convulsions are normally associated with a fever, although they can occasionally occur in particularly hot circumstances, when the child is otherwise healthy. The convulsion has nothing to do with how hot the child's temperature is but rather how quickly their temperature increases.
We lose a large percentage of our body heat through our head, which essentially means that the heat must escape through the brain. Babies and young children have a small brain, so if the heat passing through that little brain is too much, too quickly, the child may have a fit. A febrile convulsion, although extremely traumatic for a parent or carer to witness, is relatively harmless. In the vast majority of cases no harm results, and if it does, this is more likely to relate to the illness the child is fighting rather than the effects of the convulsion.
Treating the Fever
A fever is our body's way of fighting off an illness. Follow these tips to caring for your little one:
- Look out for symptoms such as difficulty in awakening or having the appearance of being "floppy" or in pain (especially around the neck and spine area). If you feel you need medical intervention (pay attention to your instincts!), seek it out immediately.
Other common symptoms of a fever include:
- Loss of appetite, tiredness, irritability and being unusually "cuddly". Your baby will feel hotter to touch than normal. Feel the back of her neck, which is usually more consistent than the forehead.
- Use a thermometer to check your child’s temperature. One important tip is to keep a fresh set of batteries for your digital thermometer.
Note that a fever is not normally classified as dangerous until it reaches 42˚C, though it's recommended not to allow it to reach that high.
- Remove outer layers of clothing so your baby is wearing only a singlet and nappy (or underpants).
- Remove your bub from any source of heat.
- Don’t cuddle your baby as your own body heat will raise theirs, very quickly. You can reassure your baby by holding her hand, stroking her head or lying next to her. If lying next to the baby, leave a little space between you both.
- Cool your child by sponging her down (or using a cool pack) for a few seconds at a time only.
- Make sure you seek medical advice before using any medication at all (such as Panadol).
- Don’t use any eucalyptus product. This includes rubs or inhalers. (For further information call the Poisons Information Centre on 13 11 26.)
- If in doubt about anything at all, see a doctor immediately.
Handling a Febrile Convulsion
First of all, remember that febrile convulsions will only usually last between a few seconds to a couple of minutes. They are common and your child will usually be OK. Febrile convulsions can be extremely distressing for a parent but it's very important that you remain calm as this will help to keep your baby calm.
- If in doubt, call 000 for an ambulance. If you do experience panic, don't drive as you will not be able to focus on the road.
- Do not move your child whilst they are convulsing. If they're in your arms, lay them down on a cool surface that isn’t too hard. A bed, couch or carpeted floor is perfect, as long they're in a secure spot and can’t fall. If the child is near a heater, turn it off and open a window. If they are outside in the sun, try to shade them.
- Do not place your child in a cool bath. This can be extremely dangerous. The child might have a fit in the bath and inhale the water, which can lead to drowning. Another reason for not doing this is that your child's temperature may decrease too dramatically, which will create a good deal of discomfort.
- If your child is banging against a wall during the convulsion, don't move her. Instead, place something soft (such as a cushion) between her and the wall to prevent injury.
- Do not put anything in the child's mouth, including water or medication. The child will not swallow her tongue, but she could easily choke if anything is put into her mouth.
- Do not try to restrain the child. No amount of restraint will stop the shaking, however trying to restrain her could easily cause an injury.
It’s important to understand that having a convulsion is exhausting. Therefore, once it is over your child will most likely want to sleep. If your child cries and appears a bit dazed afterwards, this is normal.
- Following a convulsion, make sure your child is breathing normally - as though she's asleep.
- See a doctor or wait for the paramedic.
So, What Now?
Every day parents or carers ring 000 in hysterics because they simply don't have the information to hand that would enable them to handle their child's febrile convulsion. If a parent has the correct facts at their fingertips, for example, how common and non-dangerous febrile convulsions are, they would stress less - and know how to handle the situation. To find out more, book into a first-aid course, particularly one based solely on baby and child first aid.
The information above is provided as a reference only. For all emergencies, seek medical advice or call 000 for emergency assistance.