What Are the Symptoms of Infantile Spasms?

The main symptoms of infantile spasms, also called West syndrome, are seizures and spasms. They don’t last very long -- only a few seconds. They happen in clusters. That means one follows right after another.

Seizures can be mild or forceful. Your baby may have more than one type. In a mild seizure, she might look like she’s nodding her head. A more violent seizure might make her stiffen up, fling her arms out, and bring her knees up toward her body. Or her arms and legs might go straight out as she throws her head back. Some seizures only affect one side of her body. She might cry right before or right after she has a seizure.

Your baby may also seem to twitch or jerk a muscle. You might hear the doctor call this myoclonus. There are two types:

  • Positive myoclonus: She twitches because her muscles suddenly tense up.
  • Negative myoclonus: Her muscles suddenly relax.

Myoclonus is involuntary. That means it isn’t something your baby does on purpose. She can’t control when it happens. It’s like the sudden twitch or jerk you sometimes feel as you fall asleep.

Symptoms You Can See

West syndrome can affect your baby’s autonomic nervous system, the nerves in her body that control things that happen automatically, like her heartbeat and how wide her pupils are. During a seizure, your baby may:

  • Turn pale or turn red
  • Sweat
  • Have big pupils
  • Have watery eyes
  • Breathe faster or slower
  • Have a faster or slower heartbeat

Changes in Development

As your baby grows, she reaches milestones. She rolls over, recognizes your voice, or puts things into her mouth. If your baby has West syndrome, it may take her longer to reach these points. Doctors call this delayed development.

She might also forget how to do things she already learned how to do. For example, it may seem like your baby forgot how to sit up. If she was chugging along and meeting milestones, she may seem to stop or slow down. Your doctor may call this developmental regression.

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Symptoms in the Brain

Even though she’s tiny, there’s a lot of electrical activity going in your baby’s brain. If it’s abnormal, she might have seizures. Your baby’s doctor may use electroencephalography -- EEG for short -- to measure her brain activity while she’s awake and asleep. He’ll put sticky tabs called electrodes on her head, and a machine will print out the data they pick up. Babies with infantile spasms often have an abnormal pattern of electrical activity in their brains. It's called hypsarrhythmia.

The doctor might also want to do scans of her brain. Computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans create pictures that will let them see if there are any parts of it that haven’t formed the right way. These pictures can also show lesions, or places where injury or infection may have damaged her brain.

Other Signs You Can’t See

A condition called tuberous sclerosis is a common cause of West syndrome. It can cause noncancerous tumors that often look like colorless bumps on your baby’s skin. The doctor may use a special lamp to check for them.

Blood and urine tests can help the doctor figure out if your baby has an infection that’s causing West syndrome. The doctor might also want to do a lumbar puncture (you’ll often hear this called a spinal tap) and take some of the fluid out of her spine to check for meningitis. They can also use that fluid to see if a genetic problem is to blame for her West syndrome.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD on May 15, 2018

Sources

SOURCES:

Epilepsy Foundation: “Infantile Spasms,” “Infantile spasms (West’s Syndrome) and Tuberous Sclerosis Complex.”

National Institutes of Health National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences: “West syndrome.”

National Institutes of Health National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke: “Myoclonus Fact Sheet.”

Cedars-Sinai: “West Syndrome.”

National Organization for Rare Disorders: “West Syndrome.”

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