Skip to main content

Brain Tumors in Children

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Oct 3, 2022.

What is a brain tumor?

A brain tumor is a mass that grows in your child's brain, or in an area near the brain. Examples include nerves in your child's skull, his or her pituitary gland, or the membranes that cover the brain. The tumor may start in your child's brain or travel to his or her brain from another body area. There are many kinds of brain tumors. Each kind is named for where it begins and what it does in the brain. A tumor may be malignant (cancer), or benign (not cancer). It may grow quickly or slowly.

Brain Anatomy

What causes or increases my child's risk for a brain tumor?

  • A family history of brain tumors
  • Exposure to radiation
  • Certain types of cancer that can spread to the brain, such as breast, lung, or colon cancer
  • A weakened immune system

What are the signs and symptoms of a brain tumor?

Signs and symptoms will depend on the kind of tumor your child has, and where it is in the brain. In children, tumors usually start in a part of the brain that controls movement and coordination. Your child may have any of the following:

  • Problems speaking clearly, swallowing, or walking
  • Headaches along with vomiting, especially in the morning
  • Areas that are weak or numb in an arm or leg, or loss of balance
  • Vision problems, such as blurred or double vision
  • Confusion, personality changes, or seizures
  • Irritability or lack of energy
  • Trouble with school work
  • More hunger than usual
  • Bladder or bowel control problems
  • Bulging fontanelles (soft spots) in infants

How is a brain tumor diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will examine your child and ask about his or her symptoms. Tell the provider if your child has ever had cancer, and what kind he or she had. Tell the provider if your child has a family history of brain tumors or cancer. Your child may need any of the following:

  • A neurologic exam can show healthcare providers how your child's brain is working. Other names for this test include neuro signs, neuro checks, or neuro status. Healthcare providers will check how your child's pupils react to light. They may check his or her memory and how easily he or she wakes up. Your child's hand grasp and balance may also be tested.
  • X-ray, MRI, or CT pictures may show the size and location of any tumors. Your child may be given contrast liquid help to help the tumors show up better. Tell the healthcare provider if your child has ever had an allergic reaction to contrast liquid. Do not let your child enter the MRI room with any metal. Metal can cause serious injury. Tell the healthcare provider if your child has any metal in or on his or her body.
  • A PET scan is used to take pictures of areas in your child's body. A small amount of radiation, called tracer, is put into your child's body before the PET scan. The tracer shows how chemicals, such as glucose (sugar), are working in his or her tissues. A PET scan may show a tumor or if a tumor has spread.
  • A biopsy is a procedure used to take a sample of the tumor to be tested. Tests will show if the tumor is benign or malignant, and what kind of tumor it is.
  • A lumbar puncture, or spinal tap, is a procedure used to take a sample of spinal cord fluid. The sample is tested for cancer cells in the fluid. This test will be used if other tests show it is a cancer that spreads through spinal fluid.

How is a brain tumor treated?

Treatment will depend on the type of tumor your child has and where it is located. Your child's age and health will also help guide treatment. Your child may need any of the following:

  • Medicines may be given to lower your child's risk for seizures, or to reduce swelling. This may help relieve symptoms such as headaches. Hormone medicine may also be given if a part of the brain that produces hormones is affected. Your child may also need blood thinners to prevent a blood clot. A brain tumor can increase the risk for blood clots.
  • Chemotherapy is medicine to help kill cancer cells. The medicine is usually given through an IV.
  • Radiation is used to help treat brain tumors and to prevent new tumors from forming. Radiation is usually not given to children younger than 3 years. This is because radiation can damage a developing brain.
  • Surgery may be used to remove the tumor. This is done if the tumor is in an area where surgery can be done safely. During surgery, such as craniotomy, healthcare providers will open your child's skull and remove the tumor. Surgery is used for both malignant and benign tumors. Any brain tumor can grow into another part of the brain and destroy healthy brain tissue. The goal of surgery is to remove as much of the tumor as possible.
  • Radiosurgery targets cancer cells without harming healthy brain tissue. Your child may need radiosurgery if he or she has more than one tumor or cannot have open surgery, such as a craniotomy.

Treatment options

The following list of medications are in some way related to or used in the treatment of this condition.

View more treatment options

What can I do to manage my child's symptoms?

  • Support your child. A brain tumor can change the way your child acts, thinks, and feels. His or her memory, concentration, and ability to learn may decline. He or she may act without thinking or become more emotional. Talk with family and friends about these changes and about continuing care, treatments, and home services. Take your child to all follow-up appointments. Your child may also need to work with a tutor if he or she has trouble with schoolwork.
  • Have your child rest as needed. He or she may need more rest than usual, especially after cancer treatment.
  • Do not let your adolescent smoke. Nicotine and other chemicals in cigarettes and cigars can cause brain and lung damage. Ask a healthcare provider for information if your adolescent currently smokes and needs help to quit. E-cigarettes or smokeless tobacco still contain nicotine. Talk to your adolescent's healthcare provider before he or she uses these products.
  • Have your child eat a variety of healthy foods. Healthy foods include fruits, vegetables, whole-grain breads, low-fat dairy products, lean meats, fish, nuts, and cooked beans. Have your child eat small meals if he or she has any nausea. Ask if your child needs to be on a special diet.
  • Have your child exercise as directed. Exercise can increase your child's energy and help keep his or her immune system strong. Ask your child's healthcare provider how much exercise your child needs and which exercises are best for him or her.
  • Take your child to physical, occupational, or speech therapy as directed. A physical therapist can help your child build muscle strength and coordination. An occupational therapist can help your child find ways to do daily activities more easily. A speech therapist can help you if your child's tumor caused problems with speaking.

Where can I find support and more information?

  • American Brain Tumor Association
    8550 West Bryn Mawr Avenue, Suite 550
    Chicago , IL 60631
    Phone: 1- 800 - 886-2282
    Web Address:

Call 911 if:

  • Your child's arm or leg feels warm, tender, and painful. It may look swollen and red.

When should I seek immediate care?

  • Your child has new problems walking or moving one side of his or her body.
  • Your child has new or worsening headaches or body swelling.
  • Your child has a seizure.

When should I contact my child's healthcare provider?

  • You have questions or concerns about your child's condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your child's care. Learn about your child's health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your child's healthcare providers to decide what care you want for your child. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

© Copyright IBM Corporation 2022 Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or IBM Watson Health

Learn more about Brain Tumors

Treatment options

Care guides

Symptoms and treatments

Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.