By Dr. Olga Goldfarb, MD

Perhaps you believe your child may have seizures, or you suspect they might be experiencing a sleep disorder. You make an appointment with your doctor or neurologist; they recommend taking your little one for an electroencephalogram (EEG) to check his or her brain activity.

The prospect of preparing a child, especially a young one, for the procedure can seem like a daunting task, but it doesn’t have to be.

What is an EEG?

An EEG is a safe, painless, noninvasive test that tracks electrical wave patterns in the brain in order to provide important information about brain function.

As part of my work as a pediatric neurologist, I will often order an EEG to diagnose or monitor seizure disorders, but they can also be used to identify sleep disorders, pinpoint the cause of an unexplained change in behavior, or to evaluate brain function after a head injury. I may also use the data collected to determine the class of medication that may best control your child’s seizure type.

A typical EEG is performed in a medical office, and lasts anywhere from 20 to 90 minutes, depending on what we hope to learn.

In some instances, extended monitoring may be required, in which case a technician will outfit your child with a portable EEG device to be used at home over a prolonged period, usually 24 to 72 hours.

Dr. Olga Goldfarb, Pediatric Neurologist at Marcroft Medical Associates

How to Prepare for an EEG

Whether you’re child is having a traditional EEG or one is being done at home, your preparation should be the same. When preparing a younger child, some discussion ahead of time can make a tremendous difference in the way they will respond in the testing room.

  • Discuss the procedure with your child ahead of time in an age-appropriate way. You can reassure them it won’t be painful, and encourage them to stay calm and relaxed.
  • Particularly for young children, feel free to bring a favorite stuffed animal, blanket or pillow that can provide calm and comfort during the test.
  • Your child should arrive at the office with clean, dry hair.
  • Please feed your child and have them use the restroom before the exam.
  • Dress your child comfortably, avoiding clothes with buckles, buttons or zippers that might pinch them or bunch up during the test.
  • Arrange for childcare for any other children.
  • In some instances, you may be asked to reduce your child’s sleep the night before the test, putting them to bed and waking them up two hours earlier than usual.  
  • Very important: Do not stop any medications unless directed to do so by the doctor.

During the EEG Procedure

A technician will administer the exam. He or she will begin by measuring your child’s head and marking spots on the scalp where electrodes (usually about two dozen of them) will attach. The electrodes will be attached to the scalp using a sticky paste. These electrodes will relay information directly back to the EEG machine.

Older children will generally sit for the test by themselves; however, parents of young patients will be welcomed into the exam room. In fact, having a parent present to help calm and soothe a fidgety or frightened child can be extremely helpful.

Generally, the procedure follows these steps:

  • The lights in the exam room are dimmed, and the child is asked to remain quiet and relaxed. The technician will begin the test.
  • The patient will be asked to relax and remain still. Movement and talking should be kept to a minimum for the duration of the test.
  • The technician might ask the patient to breathe deeply, look at a series of bright lights, or try to sleep.

During the exam, electrical signals from the brain are picked up by the electrodes, and converted into wave patterns on the imaging screen.

You will be reminded to keep your child still, as movement can cause wave patterns to change and may alter the EEG results, but please do not worry if your child has a difficult time. Both technicians and doctors understand the unique challenges of working with our youngest patients, and we will still be able to capture plenty of useful data.

What happens after an EEG?

When the exam is finished, the technician will remove the electrodes and clean the scalp. In very rare cases, your child may experience some skin irritation or redness where the electrodes were attached; any irritation should disappear within a few hours.

There is no additional recovery time. Unless otherwise directed by your child’s doctor, he or she can resume their normal, daily routine immediately.

Your technician will not provide the results of the exam. Depending on the complexity of the EEG, it can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days to interpret the exam results, and your doctor will contact you directly with results and any further suggestions.

Don’t ever be afraid to bring questions or concerns to your doctor’s attention. We often hear from parents who are concerned about taking young children to sit for an EEG, but if one is recommended for your son or daughter, please do not worry.

Reassure them, bring an item to help them relax, and be a calming force for them. Above all, remember that this test is extremely important, and will help us to provide the best possible care and intervention for your little one.