Neonatal Seizures

Neonatal seizures are a serious, yet preventable, condition that affects newborns and infants. A neonatal seizure is an episode of abnormal electrical activity in a baby's brain, which can cause disturbances in movements, awareness, or behaviour. Early detection and swift medical intervention are essential to minimise the risk of long-term health complications. It is therefore important for parents to be aware of the signs and symptoms of a potential seizure and the treatment options available.

What are neonatal seizures?

Neonatal seizures are sudden, uncontrolled electrical disturbances in the brain of a newborn baby. They can cause twitching or jerking movements of the arms and legs, staring spells, pauses in breathing, and changes in skin colour. These seizures can last from a few seconds to a few minutes and require urgent medical attention as they may be indicative of an underlying problem with the baby's brain development. Although they can occur at any time following birth, they most commonly happen within the first 24 hours. Treatments include anticonvulsant drugs or cooling therapy.

What are the causes of neonatal seizures?

Causes of neonatal seizures include:

  • Infections, such as meningitis, encephalitis, sepsis, and urinary tract infections, can cause neonatal seizures.
  • Certain genetic disorders like Down syndrome or cerebral palsy can also lead to seizures.
  • Hypoxia (lack of oxygen) during delivery or afterwards can also cause neonatal seizures.
  • Exposure to certain medications in utero or trauma during birth may contribute to neonatal seizure activity.

What are the symptoms of neonatal seizures?

  • Neonatal seizures can present with different types of movements, including:
    • Jerking or twitching movements in arms and legs
    • Facial grimacing
    • Staring spells
    • Unresponsiveness
    • Sudden changes in muscle tone
    • Excessive sucking or smacking of the lips
    • Rapid eye movements
    • Sweating
    • Trouble breathing or going limp during a seizure
  • Seizures can last from several seconds to a few minutes.

When should one see a doctor for neonatal seizures?

If a newborn baby experiences a seizure, medical attention should be sought as soon as possible. Seizures in newborns can be caused by a range of conditions, so early diagnosis and treatment are important. Parents should contact their doctor if their baby appears to be having a seizure or if they notice any unusual body movements such as jerking, stiffening, or arching of the back; irregular breathing; or an unusually high-pitched cry. In some cases, seizures may only last for a few seconds, which can make them difficult to identify. However, even brief episodes should still be reported promptly to a doctor.

What are the risk factors for neonatal seizures?

Some of the risk factors for neonatal seizures include:

  • Low oxygen levels during pregnancy and birth are particularly concerning if the baby has a low birth weight.
  • Infections are either contracted by the mother during pregnancy or directly by the infant after birth.
  • Abnormalities in the brain structure or development, such as those caused by infections or genetic disorders.
  • Metabolic conditions, including hypoglycemia and electrolyte imbalances, can disrupt normal brain functioning.
  • Use of certain drugs, such as anticonvulsants, opioids, and antidepressants, during pregnancy or breastfeeding, may cause seizures in newborns.


Neonatal seizures are a serious medical condition that requires immediate attention. Diagnosis is typically done through a combination of neurological assessments, imaging scans, and blood tests. Treatment is based on the underlying cause of the seizure and may include medications, diet changes, or surgery, depending on the severity and type of seizure. It is important to seek expert medical advice as soon as possible if any signs of neonatal seizures appear so that appropriate treatments can be provided promptly. Early diagnosis and treatment are key to reducing the risk of complications and long-term effects associated with neonatal seizures.

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1. How are neonatal seizures diagnosed?

Neonatal seizures are typically diagnosed based on a combination of physical examination findings, EEG results, and clinical history. In some cases, imaging tests may also be performed to investigate the underlying cause.

2. What is the treatment for neonatal seizures?

Treatment for neonatal seizures usually involves anticonvulsant medications to control the seizure activity and supportive care to address any underlying medical conditions or precipitating factors that may be causing the seizures.

3. Is there a risk of long-term complications from neonatal seizures?

Yes, there is a risk of long-term complications from neonatal seizures, including developmental delays, cognitive deficits, and other neurological problems. Therefore, it is important to seek prompt medical attention if your baby is exhibiting symptoms of a seizure disorder.

4. Are there any lifestyle changes that can help reduce the risk of neonatal seizures?

Maintaining good prenatal care throughout pregnancy is one way to reduce the risk of your baby developing neonatal seizures. Additionally, avoiding drug and alcohol use during pregnancy may also help lower the risk of seizure disorders in newborns.

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