An emergency pediatrician explains why a fall isn't as scary as you think, and what to do if your infant hits her head.
In a blog post on New Year's Day, Eva Amurri Martino revealed that her 11-week-old son had suffered a skull fracture after the family's night nurse fell asleep while holding the infant and dropped him. The actress wrote that she and her husband were woken "by the sound of his head hitting the floor, and then hysterical piercing screams."
It's the stuff of nightmares for every parent—and the truth is, dropping a baby can happen to anyone: You look away for just a second, and your baby rolls off the bed. Or you trip while carrying your little one, and her head bangs onto the ground.
"Do infants get dropped? Yes," says Elizabeth Powell, MD, a pediatric emergency medicine physician at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. It's actually a common way that young babies (those in the first 12 weeks) get injured, she adds. In babies younger than one year, falls are the number one cause of nonfatal injuries, making up half of all incidents, according to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But moms and dads can take some comfort in knowing that the risk of falling isn't as scary as it seems. "Most children who hit most surfaces won't have a problem," says Dr. Powell.
It's true that young infants are more likely to experience a skull fracture, because their bones are softer. But in the majority of cases, a scull fracture will simply heal, without causing further trouble. As Dr. Powell puts it, "Skull fractures are relatively common and relatively not a problem."
What doctors worry about is the possibility of an intracranial injury—such as a cerebral contusion (a bruise on the brain) or a hematoma (a collection of blood outside a blood vessel)—which can be life-threatening.
Amurri Martino's son, Major James, experienced "bleeding on his brain" and spent two harrowing days in the hospital. But thankfully, tests revealed his injuries were not serious: "By the grace of all of his many angels, and every God one cares to pray to, MAJOR IS FINE. Completely fine," wrote the grateful mom (who is the daughter of Susan Sarandon). "Though he had the fracture, some skull displacement, and bleeding, the skull did not touch his brain and the bleeding was localized. Further MRI’s showed no brain damage and we were discharged by experts in pediatrics and neurology with as excellent of a prognosis as we could have ever hoped for."
Yesterday Amurri Martino posted a photo of herself with Major James on Instagram, and thanked those who had reached out since she published the news: "It is so moving to know there are so many of you who are wishing our sweet boy well, and who are rooting us on as a family."
So what do you if your baby falls and hits her head?
“If they hit the floor and seem okay, they probably are,” says Dr. Powell. But keep an eye out for symptoms over the next four to six hours. If your baby is acting abnormally—if he's not eating, for example, or seems especially fussy or drowsy—call your pediatrician.
And if you're unsure, call anyway. Especially with younger infants, "err on the side of caution," says Dr. Powell, because they exhibit fewer behavioral clues. Your doctor can provide assurance, or tell you what steps to take next.