Staring Spells: When It's More Than Daydreaming

Black and white photo of little girl staring out a window

Your child’s mind is such a busy place with everything she’s learning every day, and her imagination is growing as fast as she is. No wonder some kids “space out” and stare into space from time to time.

Though most staring spells are perfectly normal, sometimes they can signal an absence seizure. Once known as petit-mal (“little sickness”) seizures, absence seizures most commonly affect children between ages 4 and 14, but older kids and even adults can occasionally have them. They are caused by a temporary spark of abnormal electrical activity in the brain.

During the seizure, the child will stop what she’s doing and stare ahead. She may stay still during the event, or make chewing or smacking noises with her mouth. Her eyelids may flutter, and she may not respond to others speaking to her. Then, about 15 seconds later, as suddenly as it came on, the seizure is over and she’s back to normal.

Absence seizures are not dangerous, but frequent recurrences can affect your child’s ability to learn and concentrate.

Absence Seizures: What Parents Should Know

So how do you tell the difference between normal zoning out or daydreaming, and this subtle form of epilepsy? It’s not easy: Absence seizures are hard to detect, and many children have them for years without anyone noticing.

Carl Stafstrom, M.D., is the Lederer Endowed Chair of Pediatric Epilepsy at Johns Hopkins. He says, “If, during a staring spell, your child does not respond when you snap your fingers or call her name, it may be appropriate to see your pediatrician, who can evaluate the child and refer to a pediatric neurologist.”

The pediatric neurologist can administer an EEG to test electrical activity in the child’s brain. If this (painless) test shows an irregularity, the neurologist may recommend treatment, which usually consists of anti-seizure medicine.

“Absence seizures are very mild, yet they warrant treatment for the child’s safety and to support academic achievement,” Stafstrom says. “Ethosuximide is a drug that is used specifically for absence seizures, and it works well.”

Lifestyle Changes Can Help

Lifestyle changes can help reduce the frequency of seizures. It is especially important for the child to get plenty of sleep. A healthy diet and regular exercise are very important for brain health as well. Keep an eye out for more “spells” when your child is tired or stressed.

Stafstrom notes that many children outgrow absence seizures on their own. So chances are, even if your child’s staring spells do turn out to be absence seizures, she is likely to leave them behind with no lasting problems.

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