Skip to main content

Childhood Absence Epilepsy

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Oct 31, 2022.

What is childhood absence epilepsy (CAE)?

CAE is a brain disorder that causes your child to have absence seizures. A seizure is an episode of abnormal brain activity. An absence seizure causes your child to stare without being aware of his or her surroundings. This usually lasts for 5 to 15 seconds. It can continue for up to 30 seconds. The seizure starts and stops suddenly. Your child then goes back to the activity he or she was doing before the seizure. Your child is not aware that the seizure happened. Absence seizures can happen more than 100 times each day. CAE usually starts between 5 and 7 years of age. It may start at 4 years or up to 8 years. Children often outgrow absence seizures. Some children develop another type of seizure called a tonic-clonic seizure. This is a seizure that causes convulsions.

What are the signs and symptoms of CAE?

  • A sudden stop in talking or doing something
  • Blankly staring ahead
  • Not responding when spoken to
  • Repeated movements, such as lip-smacking or eyelid fluttering
  • Trouble learning in school

How is CAE diagnosed?

Your child's healthcare provider will ask about your child's health conditions and what medicines he or she takes. Tell the provider when your child's symptoms began. Describe what your child was doing before an episode began and how long it lasted. Your child may be asked to hyperventilate (breathe hard and quickly) for about 3 minutes. He or she will count out loud while breathing this way. His or her eyes may need to be shut. This kind of breathing may trigger an absence seizure. The seizure will cause your child to stop breathing hard and open his or her eyes. Your child may also need any of the following:

  • An EEG records the electrical activity of your child's brain. It is used to find changes in the normal patterns of his or her brain activity. The EEG may be repeated over time to check how well treatment is working.
  • An MRI may be used if your child continues to have absence seizures with treatment. This is done to check for other problems that may be causing the episodes. Your child may be given contrast liquid to help his or her brain show up better in the pictures. 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 anything metal. Metal can cause serious injury. Tell the healthcare provider if your child has any metal in or on his or her body.

How is CAE treated?

Medicines will help control the seizures. Your child may need medicine daily to prevent seizures. Do not let your child stop taking his or her medicine unless directed by a healthcare provider. Your child may take the medicine for 1 to 2 years, or until tests are normal. He or she will be weaned off the medicine slowly. This needs to be done with a healthcare provider's guidance.

What can I do to support my child?

  • Talk to your child's teachers about classroom behavior. Children with absence seizures sometimes appear to be daydreaming or not paying attention. Explain the absence seizures and how long they usually last for your child. Ask teachers to be patient. Your child needs to be fully aware after an absence seizure before he or she answers a question.
  • Talk to your child's teachers and care providers about the seizures. Tell your child's family members, babysitters, daycare providers, and teachers what to expect with the seizures. Make sure everyone knows not to shake or push your child to make him or her respond. Explain that the episode should only last a few seconds and to be patient. Have care providers contact you if your child has several seizures in a row or they start to last longer.
  • Get learning support for your child, if needed. Your child may have trouble learning because of the seizures. He or she may have trouble concentrating. Memory problems may also happen. A tutor or specialist may be able to help him or her keep up with the class. Talk to your child's school officials about learning support and resources offered by the school.

What can I do to help manage or prevent my child's seizures?

  • Have your child take his or her medicine every day at the same time. This will also help prevent medicine side effects. Set an alarm to help remind you and your child to take the medicine every day.
  • Help your child recognize when he or she is bored. Your child may tend to have absence seizures when he or she is bored. Your child can recognize these times and take action. Help your child make a list of activities he or she enjoys. Examples include drawing, building a toy, or writing a story. Have your child choose an activity from the list when he or she feels bored.
  • Set a regular sleep schedule for your child. Absence seizures may happen more often when your child is tired. A regular sleep schedule will prevent him or her from being tired during the day. Have your child go to sleep and wake up at the same times every day. Keep your child's room dark and quiet. Talk to your child's healthcare provider if your child is having trouble sleeping.
  • Keep a seizure diary. Write down the dates of the seizures. Include where your child was, and what he or she was doing. Also include anything your child did during the seizure, such as lip-smacking. Bring the diary with you to follow-up visits with healthcare providers. This may help you and the providers change your child's treatment.
  • Teach your child to be careful during sports. Sports or other physical activities can make your child hyperventilate (breathe hard and quickly). This can trigger an absence seizure. Talk to your child's coach or sports officials about the absence seizures. Your child may need to take a break to slow his or her breathing. Teach your child not to do any activity so hard that it causes hyperventilation.
  • Ask what safety precautions your child should take. Talk to your child's healthcare provider about swimming and bathing. Your child may drown or develop life-threatening heart or lung damage if a seizure happens in water.

When should I call my child's doctor?

  • Your child falls or has convulsions (shaking he or she cannot control).
  • Your child is confused for several minutes after a seizure.
  • Your child has an absence seizure in water, such as a swimming pool or bath tub.
  • Your child is depressed or anxious because of the seizures.
  • Your child's seizures start to happen more often or last longer.
  • Your child continues to have absence seizures even with treatment.
  • 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.

Ā© 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 CareNotesĀ® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or IBM Watson Health

Further information

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