My child had a febrile convulsion

Paediatrician Su Laurent has many years' experience of dealing with sick babies and children but even doctors can fall prey to the occasional parenting lapse…

As paediatricians, we quite often see febrile convulsions in the accident and emergency department (A&E) of our hospital.

A febrile convulsion is a fit, which can happen when a child or baby has a very high temperature, or fever. It doesn't occur in all children with a high fever but it is quite a common event, and extremely scary for parents to witness.

My toddler's fit was probably my fault

I'm embarrassed to say that, as a paediatrician, I'm pretty sure that my child not only had a febrile convulsion but I was probably also very much responsible for it.

My little boy was 18 months old at the time. He was in bed and I heard him cry out. I went to see him and he had a very high fever. He was dressed in one of those all-in-one sleeping bags and he was breathing fast. From his breathing and symptoms, I could tell he had a chest infection.

So I did what many mothers would do, which was to bring him into bed with me and cuddle him. And then, somehow or another, despite knowing he shouldn't be allowed to get too hot, I managed to fall back asleep with him in bed, in his sleeping bag, under the duvet, cuddled up next to me.

I woke to find he was having a convulsion

The next thing I remember is waking up with a jerking feeling against my back, and realising that my son was having a febrile convulsion. I also realised that it was happening because I'd let him get far too hot when I really should have known better!

I woke my husband up to help. He's a GP so also knew what to do (and what not to do!). Unfortunately, he said, "I'm really sorry - I can't help right now," and went to the loo to be sick himself. So there I was with a sick toddler and a sick husband…

Fortunately, I knew exactly what to do about my little boy's fit, which luckily didn't last very long. It stopped all by itself as most febrile convulsions do. I stripped him off to cool him down and gave him some Calpol when he woke up. He was absolutely fine and has had no ill-effects.

Photo posed by model

Su explains about febrile convulsions

A febrile convulsion is a fit, which is brought on by a high fever. It can happen in children who are otherwise healthy, usually between the ages of six months and five years.

A child having a fit will be unconscious and shaking, jerking in a very alarming way, and most parents who have witnessed their child having a febrile convulsion tell me that they thought they were going to die. That's how scary it is.

A febrile convulsion happens because the brain has become overheated, but it's not actually dangerous to the child. Any febrile convulsion that lasts for less than 20 minutes, we call a 'short' febrile convulsion, while one that lasts longer than this is 'prolonged'.

Sometimes children can shake quite violently when they have a very high fever, and we call that a 'rigor'. The way you know it's not a convulsion is that the child will be conscious and it is not nearly as scary to witness. A fit and a rigor are two quite different things.

The most important thing to know is that children who have either a convulsion or a rigor will be absolutely fine.

You can reduce the likelihood of a febrile convulsion happening by keeping your child's temperature down with the recommended dose of paracetamol and trying to avoid her getting overheated. If it does happen, though, it's important to know what to do.

What to do if your child has a febrile convulsion

If your child is having a convulsion, the important thing is to keep her cool, so take off any warm clothing but don't let her get so cold that she shivers. Lie your child on her side so she can't swallow her tongue. If she's sick for any reason, this position means she can't inhale anything.

Don't try to put anything in your child's mouth and put her somewhere safe, such as on the ground or on a bed. This is to avoid any injuries from falling or banging into things.

Then wait for the fit to pass.

If the jerking carries on for more than three or four minutes, call an ambulance. By the time the ambulance arrives the fit is likely to have stopped anyway but if it hasn't, the ambulance crew can give your child treatment to make it stop.

If your child's had a fit for the first time, it's important to call your doctor so they can investigate. If she's had a febrile convulsion before and you know what to do, you don't need to tell your doctor unless you're not sure why your child's got a high fever.

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As far as scary parenting

As far as scary parenting moments go, the day my 18-month-old daughter had a febrile convulsion is right up there with the worst of them.

We were out shopping when suddenly she screamed and started to jerk uncontrollably in her buggy. It was terrifying. I ran home, bundled her into the car and drove to hospital. During the 10-minute drive, she fell into a deep sleep, which I found just as unnerving - I thought she might be in a coma.

At A&E, she was seen straightaway and admitted to the children's ward for observation. She had a high temperature, which I'd been completely unaware of – before the fit, she'd seemed fine to me. Later that day, she had another febrile convulsion.

Over the next few days she had lots of tests – for epilepsy among other things – and it was a very worrying time, but thankfully nothing abnormal was discovered. She's never had any other problems and is now a healthy teenager.

After the event, I felt guilty for not realising that she had a fever. As a new parent, I didn't know then that children can go from well to ill very quickly, and all we can do is respond as fast as possible once we notice that something's wrong.

Thanks Su for highlighting an important health issue in such a reassuring way.

This must be terrifying if

This must be terrifying if you've never come across it before. Small children can develop high fevers very suddenly (at least mine did) and it's important to know what to do if they have a febrile convulsion. Thanks, Su! Touche, what an awful experience for you and your little girl.

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