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Water on the Brain in Babies: What Parents Should Know

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Hydrocephalus, also called water on the brain, is a neurological condition in which there is a build-up of cerebrospinal fluid. Cerebrospinal fluid, or CSF, surrounds the brain and spinal cord.

It serves several functions, including taking waste products away from the brain, providing buoyancy, transporting hormones, and acting as a cushion. Too much cerebrospinal fluid causes problems — the CSF build-up puts pressure on the brain, leading to damage of the brain tissue.

Hydrocephalus is not uncommon among babies: in about every 500 births, one infant has water on the brain, according to the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford. Water on the brain in babies occurs because too much CSF has been produced, the body has problems absorbing the fluid, or there is a blockage that interferes in the cerebrospinal fluid’s flow.

Some infants with water on the brain have the build-up of CSF while they are still in the womb. MedlinePlus noted that this is common with a condition called myelomeningocele, in which the child’s spinal column does not completely close.

Some children may have acquired hydrocephalus. The Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford noted that premature birth may cause water on the brain in babies. Bleeding in the brain that occurs either during delivery or soon after it is another cause of hydrocephalus, and it often occurs in premature babies.

Central nervous system infections, such as encephalitis and meningitis, may affect cerebrospinal fluid flow. Other causes of acquired hydrocephalus include tumors, trauma, birth injuries and abnormal blood vessel formation.

An infant who has water on the brain may have a bulging fontanel, noticeable scalp veins and a high-pitched cry. She may be less alert than usual and have an increased head circumference. The child may have irritability, separated sutures and projectile vomiting.

The Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford stated that an infant who has water on the brain may have seizures, bulging eyes and developmental delays. Other symptoms of hydrocephalus include poor feeding and deficits and muscle tone.

The goal of treating water on the brain in babies is reducing the pressure caused by the CSF build-up. This may involve surgery and additional medications.

With the surgical route, a shunt is placed in the baby’s head, which directs the extra CSF to elsewhere in the body, such as the abdomen. This type of surgery has several side effects, which include bleeding, fever, infection, and over-drainage or under-drainage of cerebrospinal fluid.


MayoClinic.com. Hydrocephalus. Web. 28 December 2011

Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford. Hydrocephalus. Web. 28 December 2011

MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. Hydrocephalus. Web. 28 December 2011

Reviewed December 28, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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