First Time User? Enroll now.
COVID-19: Vaccine information and additional resources | Medicaid: The program is changing and you must take steps to keep your UNC Health providers
Home > Health Library > Head Injury, Age 3 and Younger
Almost all children will bump their heads, especially when they are babies or toddlers and are just learning to roll over, crawl, or walk. These accidents may upset you, but your anxiety is usually worse than the injury. Most head injuries in children are minor.
Head injury occurs more often in young children than adults. When compared with adults:
Bumps, cuts, and scrapes on the head and face usually heal well and can be treated the same as injuries to other parts of the body. A superficial cut on the head often bleeds heavily because the face and scalp have many blood vessels close to the surface of the skin. This bleeding is alarming, but often the injury is not severe and you can stop the bleeding with home treatment. When bleeding does not stop with home treatment, visit a doctor because a young child can lose a large amount of blood from a deep cut on the head.
The most common serious head injuries in young children are caused by falls and abuse (inflicted head injuries), such as shaken baby syndrome. Serious head injuries may involve injuries to the brain. The more force that is involved in a head injury, the more likely it is that a serious injury to the brain has occurred. If there has been a high-energy injury to the head, there is a greater likelihood that a serious injury has occurred. When a high-energy injury occurs, it is even more important to assess the child for signs of a serious head injury.
Following an injury, it can be hard to tell the difference between a mild traumatic brain injury (concussion) and a more serious brain injury. Watch the child carefully for 24 hours after a head injury to see whether he or she develops any signs of a serious head injury.
When a head injury has occurred, look for injuries to other parts of the body. The alarm of seeing a head injury may cause you to overlook other injuries that need attention. Trouble breathing, shock, spinal injuries, and severe bleeding are all life-threatening injuries that may occur along with a head injury and require immediate medical attention. Injuries to the spine, especially the neck, must be considered when a head injury has occurred. Be sure to check for other injuries to the face, mouth, or teeth whenever there is a head injury.
Many head injuries can be prevented. Use car seats, seat belts, helmets, and make your home safe from falls to prevent an injury. Establish good safety habits early so your child will continue them when he or she is older.
Check your child's symptoms to decide if and when your child should see a doctor.
Many things can affect how your body responds to a symptom and what kind of care you may need. These include:
You have answered all the questions. Based on your answers, you may be able to take care of this problem at home.
With severe bleeding, any of these may be true:
With moderate bleeding, any of these may be true:
With mild bleeding, any of these may be true:
Other symptoms related to a head injury that may appear later include:
Symptoms of a spinal cord injury in a child may include:
Shock is a life-threatening condition that may occur quickly after a sudden illness or injury.
Babies and young children often have several symptoms of shock. These include:
Symptoms of a skull fracture may include:
Symptoms of a serious head injury may include:
Babies' heads are easily damaged, and their neck muscles are not strong enough to control the movement of the head. Shaking or throwing a baby can cause the head to jerk back and forth. This can make the skull hit the brain with force, causing brain damage, serious vision problems, or even death.
Based on your answers, you may need care right away. The problem is likely to get worse without medical care.
Based on your answers, you may need care soon. The problem probably will not get better without medical care.
Based on your answers, you need emergency care.
Call 911 or other emergency services now.
Put direct, steady pressure on the wound until help arrives. Keep the area raised if you can.
Sometimes people don't want to call 911. They may think that their symptoms aren't serious or that they can just get someone else to drive them. Or they might be concerned about the cost. But based on your answers, the safest and quickest way for you to get the care you need is to call 911 for medical transport to the hospital.
Do not move the person unless there is an immediate threat to the person's life, such as a fire. If you have to move the person, keep the head and neck supported and in a straight line at all times. If the person has had a diving accident and is still in the water, float the person face up in the water.
Based on your answers, the problem may not improve without medical care.
Parents should watch their child for any problems after the injury. Home treatment can help relieve swelling and bruising of the skin or scalp and pain that occurs with a minor head injury.
Be sure to follow the instructions given to you by your child's doctor. He or she will tell you what problems to look for and how closely to watch your child for the next 24 hours or longer.
Do not give any medicine, including nonprescription acetaminophen, such as Tylenol, to a child you are watching for signs of a more serious head injury unless your doctor tells you to.
Call your child's doctor if any of the following occur during home treatment:
Each new learning stage for your baby requires increased attention on your part to prevent an injury. It may surprise you how fast your baby can move from one stage to the next. Being aware of your baby's abilities and what skills he or she is likely to develop next will help you prevent injuries.
Always be gentle with your baby. Be sure to protect your baby from a brain injury. Shaking or slapping a baby in anger can cause an injury to the brain. If a baby has been shaken or slapped, it is your responsibility to notify your doctor.
Be aware of your baby's risk of falling. Watch your baby carefully.
Take steps to prevent falls:
Practice good safety habits early so your child will continue them when he or she is older:
For more information on health and safety for children, see the topics Health and Safety, Age Birth to 2 Years or Health and Safety, Ages 2 to 5 Years.
You can help your doctor diagnose and treat your child's condition by being prepared to answer the following questions:
Current as of:
July 1, 2021
Author: Healthwise StaffMedical Review: William H. Blahd Jr. MD, FACEP - Emergency MedicineAdam Husney MD - Family MedicineKathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Current as of: July 1, 2021
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:William H. Blahd Jr. MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine & Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine & Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
To learn more about Healthwise, visit Healthwise.org.
© 1995-2021 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.