Infantile spasms: what is West syndrome?

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Infantile spasms, known as West syndrome, are a form of epilepsy that occurs in the first few months of a baby’s life. How to recognize a crisis and what to do?

Infantile spasms are a rare form of epilepsy that affects babies under one year of age (boys more often than girls). The first attacks usually occur between 3 and 8 months, and can have irreversible consequences. It is sometimes difficult to identify them because the symptoms can be mistaken for the natural restlessness of an infant.

What are the signs?

West syndrome can be due to a brain defect, injury, or deformity. In 10% of cases, however, its cause is unknown … It manifests itself in a series of spasms: the baby contracts involuntarily, sometimes having his eyes rolled back. These shakes last a few seconds before repeating themselves until they reach several minutes. They usually occur upon awakening, in the morning or after a nap, and are characterized by:

  • A throw of the arms upwards.
  • An upward extension of the legs.
  • Bending the head forward.
  • A fold of the legs on the chest.
  • The contraction of muscles.
  • Eye movements to the side, up.
  • Changes in breathing.

During a seizure, the baby may also have stomach pain. The sudden movements of the spasms sometimes scare him: he may start to cry. After the onset of spasms, the newborn may appear less smiling, less playful and more withdrawn or even absent. Little by little, we can also observe a slowdown in psychomotor development: delay in walking, speaking, cleaning up, etc. Or a regression: some children lose some of their abilities.

Are infantile spasms dangerous?

A seizure is not in itself dangerous, but infantile spasms can have serious consequences for a baby’s development and growth if the condition is not recognized and treated. The danger of West syndrome, still too little known to young parents, is therefore its late diagnosis.

What to do?

If you notice spasms in your child, see a doctor as soon as possible to let them know about your concerns. If you have the chance, film a seizure of your baby so the doctor can see it.

The diagnosis of West syndrome is made with an electroencephalogram (EEG, a test that records the electrical activity of the brain). Antiepileptic drugs may then be prescribed. In rare cases, if medication is not sufficient, brain surgery is considered.

Other examinations can also be performed to establish the cause of infantile spasms (CT scan, MRI, blood tests, etc.).

For more information, see a brochure from here.

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