To the parents of a child with epilepsy, the world may seem an especially dangerous place. If you have a child with epilepsy, you may secretly wish that you could surround your child with an entourage of nurses, or some protective bubble. All parents worry about horrible, what-if scenarios.
While these fears are perfectly natural, they generally aren't rooted in reality. The fact is that most kids with epilepsy do fine. In the vast majority of cases, they lead completely normal lives.
"There used to be an emphasis on what children with epilepsy can't do," says William R. Turk, MD, chief of the Neurology Division at the Nemours Children's Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida. "But nowadays, we try to stress to kids and teenagers not what they can't do, but what they can do."
And most kids with epilepsy can do just about anything.
Common Sense Limits for a Child With Epilepsy
There are a few extra precautions that parents of children with epilepsy need to take, especially around heights or water. Climbing a tree or a ladder could be dangerous if a child has a seizure while he or she is doing it, Turk says. "I generally tell kids that, if it's above their head, they shouldn't be on it."
For nervous parents, swimming or boating might seem out of the question for their children with epilepsy. But as long as the children are supervised by a parent or a lifeguard in the pool, they should be okay. On boats, children with epilepsy should wear a life jacket, just like any other child. "As long as someone's watching, the most dangerous place is not a pool or in the ocean," says Turk. "It's the bathtub, which is why people with epilepsy need to take showers, not baths."
Because the bathroom can be a dangerous place for children with epilepsy, here are some other good precautions:
- Make sure that bathroom doors open outwards.
- Remove locks from bathroom doors.
- Make certain the drain in the tub isn't clogged, so it won't fill with water by accident.
Playing Sports With Epilepsy
Some children with epilepsy worry that they won't be able to play sports. A lot of parents have the mistaken impression that sports are too dangerous. But sports are an important part of any child's life, and in most cases, sports are safe for children with epilepsy. There isn't a hard and fast rule about what sports a kid with epilepsy should or shouldn't play. It ultimately comes down to common sense about your child's particular condition. Turk encourages his patients, both children and teenagers, to think practically about their abilities. He asks his patients to imagine the consequences of having a seizure during a particular activity. If the consequences are dangerous, they shouldn't do it.
Having a seizure on the soccer or baseball field isn't dangerous, although it may be embarrassing. However, having a seizure while rock-climbing could be dangerous, so children who are prone to seizures should take special precautions.
What about contact sports? Again, it depends. If your child is prone to seizures, a loss of consciousness on the football field might be risky. But if the medicine is working and seizures are under control, then the risk of having a seizure on the field is really quite low. Some parents worry about children with epilepsy being hit on the head. There isn't any evidence that the brains of kids with epilepsy are more fragile than usual. For children whose seizures are under control, contact sports are just as safe or risky as they are for anyone else.
Dealing With Your Child's Coaches
You should deal with a coach -- or a lifeguard -- just as you would a teacher: You should tell the coach right up front that your child has epilepsy. Even if it's been a while since your child last had a seizure, it's still better to mention it. There's nothing to be ashamed of, and it's good for the coach to be prepared for a possible seizure.
You may run across some poorly informed coaches who resist having a child with epilepsy on the team. If this happens, you should step in. The coach may not know any better, and a little education about epilepsy may change their mind.
Stepping Back From Your Child
Although as a parent you may wince when you find out that your child with epilepsy is trying out for the basketball team, remember that being overprotective -- or unfairly restricting options -- may be more psychologically and socially damaging than the epilepsy itself.
Taking part in a sport is a great thing for children with epilepsy. They can learn to be part of a team, make friends, and get a chance to excel. In almost every case, the benefits outweigh the unlikely risks.