Symptoms of Brain Tumors in Children

Signs and Symptoms of Childhood Brain Tumors

What are the signs and symptoms of brain tumors in children?. Credit: Photo©SergiyN

What are the symptoms and signs of brain tumors in children?  If you're asking this question, you may be very frightened.  The first thing to realize is that, for all of the symptoms of brain tumors, the most common causes are not cancer.

Factors Affecting the Signs and Symptoms of Brain Tumors in Children

The symptoms of brain tumors vary greatly depending on several factors: where in the brain the tumor is located, the size of the mass, how rapidly the tumor is growing, and the age of the child.

The brain is extremely delicate and complex - a very small tumor can greatly affect the body. The severity of a symptom, however, does not give insight to whether the tumor is large or small.

Brain tumors can either be malignant (cancerous) or benign (non-cancerous). Brain tumors account for roughly 20% of childhood cancers.

Symptoms of Brain Tumors in Children

Again, it's important to understand that all of the symptoms below are much more likely to be caused by a condition other than a brain tumor.  When two or more of these symptoms occur together, it increases the chances, but it still a fairly rare occurrence.  The symptom that is not listed here - and probably the most important symptom - is your "gut" feeling as a parent.  If your child's symptoms or behavior are in any way concerning you, make sure to talk to your pediatrician.


Headaches are the most common symptom of brain tumors in children, but headaches are more likely to be caused by another condition.

  Headaches due to a brain tumor typically become more frequent and increase in severity over time.  Headaches that occur in the morning - especially if they wake the child up from sleep - and improve during the day, are more concerning than headaches which occur later in the day.  They are often not relieved by over-the-counter pain medications such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen.

Headaches related to a brain tumor may be worsened by coughing or sneezing or when your child bends over.  Nausea and vomiting may occur with the headache, and these headaches often improve after vomiting.  While a headache in a child is most likely due to a much less serious condition, chronic headaches should not be ignored.  Check out these 10 signs that a headache is serious.


Seizures are also a common symptom, and often a first symptom of a brain tumor.  Seizures occur in up to half of people with brain tumors.  There is a spectrum of seizure disorders which can vary from being severe "tonic clonic" seizures, as many people picture them, to milder shakes with jerky movements, to even the appearance of a child just being "out of it" for a moment. If you suspect your child may have had a seizure, seek medical attention immediately.

Mental Status Change/Fatigue

A change in your child's sleeping needs may be of concern, especially when combined with other symptoms, though certainly fatigue has a multitude of causes.

  Some parents have used other terms to describe this change in energy level such as "obtunded" rather than fatigue.  In other words, even when awake a child may appear less alert and be less likely to track conversations as before.

Cognitive Decline

A child with a brain tumor may show signs of confusion, or appear not to understand things she did previously.  Parents may notice that their child seems to have leveled off developmentally, and is not reaching the developmental milestones they would expect.  This is more recognizable in children who are of school age, and teachers may contact parents with concerns.  In smaller children, an example could be that it takes longer than normal to complete tasks - such as difficulty putting together Legos.  These symptoms can appear suddenly, or be noted very gradually.

Behavior/Personality Changes

Some children develop personality changes, especially irritability, with a brain tumor.  The key with this symptom is that it is a change from before.  A child who was quiet before may shout out, whereas a louder child may become quiet.  Reactions may not necessarily coincide with situations.  For example, the child may laugh at something which is not funny, or become angry for no reason at all. 

Loss of Coordination/Difficulty Walking

A child with a brain tumor may gradually have more difficulty walking, or even sitting, due to what appears to be a loss of the sense of balance. She may stumble more often or bump into walls.  Other forms of coordination, such as eating may appear to have changed, and she may appear "clumsy." Often children do not notice these changes themselves.  Speech may also change, with slurring of words and slowing of sentences.

Nausea and Vomiting

Your child may complain of nausea, especially with a headache, and may vomit with little warning.  Vomiting may also be very forceful, what's known as "projectile vomiting."

Blurred Vision

Brain tumors commonly cause double vision and other visual changes.  She may complain about difficulty seeing or reading, or rather you may notice that she is turning her head to look at objects and is tilting her head often.

Bulging Fontanelle

In infants, the sutures in the brain have not yet closed, and the soft spot is still present.  When a tumor increases intracranial pressure it can cause the soft spot (the fontanelle) to bulge upwards, and parents may even be able to feel the sutures between the bones in the skull separated somewhat.  Due to this expansion, parents might notice that their child's head seems larger than normal.

Evaluation of Symptoms

The most important thing you can do is trust your instinct as a parent.  If your child has any of these symptoms, or any symptoms at all that concern you, talk to her pediatrician.  There are many conditions other than brain tumors that can cause these symptoms, and some of those conditions are important to diagnose early as well.  Talk to your doctor about the ways to diagnose a brain tumor.


American Cancer Society. Signs and symptoms of brain and spinal tumors in children. Updated 01/21/16.

National Cancer Institute. Childhood Brain and Spinal Tumors Treatment Overview (PDQ). Updated 09/17/15.

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