The cells in the human brain communicate with one another via electrical signals. When these electrical signals become chaotic, a seizure occurs. Seizures are the physical manifestations of this brain short-circuit. In babies, symptoms of seizures can be nonspecific and range from lip smacking and groaning noises to the full-blown, generalized body shaking typically associated with seizure disorders. Seizures can have many causes in babies, including infections, metabolic conditions, trauma and birth injuries and febrile seizures.
Infections of the central nervous system may cause seizures. These include meningitis, an inflammation of the tissues surrounding the brain and spinal cord, and encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain tissue itself. Bacteria, viruses and, rarely, fungi can cause these infections. In babies, viruses such as enteroviruses can cause encephalitis. The herpes simplex virus can also cause life-threatening seizures and brain infection. According to a study reported in February 2012 in the journal "The Lancet," group B strep remains the most common bacterial cause of meningitis in newborns. Vaccines have decreased the incidence of meningitis caused by a bacterium called Haemophilus influenzae, but unvaccinated children are at risk for developing this serious infection, which can cause high fever and seizures.
Some babies are born with conditions that interfere with their body’s normal metabolic function. For example, some conditions cause hypoglycemia, or low blood glucose. Glucose is the main energy source for the brain. When the level of glucose decreases below a certain level, it can cause a seizure. According to a 1997 review article in the "European Journal of Pediatrics," infants who are smaller than normal at birth commonly have low blood glucose. Another important risk factor for hypoglycemia is if the infant's mother has gestational diabetes. When this happens, the baby's glucose drops rapidly after birth, leading to lethargy, difficult feeding and possibly seizures.
Trauma and Birth Injuries
According to a study in the December 2009 issue of the journal "Clinical Perinatology," the most common cause of symptomatic seizures in newborns is brain malfunction caused by lack of oxygen. This condition -- known as hypoxic/ischemic encephalopathy -- can happen if oxygen is lacking while the fetus is developing the womb or if the baby's oxygen supply is compromised during labor and delivery. The lack of oxygen can lead to permanent brain injury and predispose to the occurrence of seizures.
Febrile seizures are common in babies as young as 6 months of age. They are brief seizures than happen when a baby’s temperature suddenly rises, usually as a result of a mild infection. According to a November 2010 article in the journal "Clinical Evidence," febrile seizures are usually brief, lasting less than 15 minutes with full recovery within an hour. This type of seizure usually does not recur within a 24-hour period. These types of seizures usually do not cause long-term problems, although a small percentage of babies with febrile seizures develop epilepsy.
If your baby has a seizure, it is important to seek prompt medical attention. Emergency medical personnel are trained to deal with seizures by providing oxygen and antiseizure medications.