As if getting kids ready for the day isn’t hard enough, there is always the possibility—though small—that your kid could faint while having their hair brushed. Hair-grooming syncope is the term used to define the fainting, seizure-like episode that happens while a child is having their hair combed or styled. This might seem like some kind of underground resistance by little kids trying to get out of having a brush dragged through the day’s bedhead; but it’s an actual thing—a very scary thing—that has come to national attention after Alicia Brown Phillips wrote a post on Facebook describing the terrifying incident that happened with her sister.
“This morning I was curling my little sister Gracie’s hair for church. I was maybe about five minutes in and she starts to gag a little and looks kind of pale. I asked her if she was going to get sick and she shook her head yes. I get my little daughters out of the bathroom and start to hold her hair up for her as she leans over the toilet. 30 seconds later… she looks at me. She is extremely pale with blue lips and starts to pass out. Her pupils got really big and I caught her.”
After describing the event and several hours in a children’s hospital, it was determined that Gracie was thankfully fine. She just happened to be one of very few cases a year when hair trimming, braiding, pulling, brushing, or curling can cause presyncopal symptoms in children. This happens because nerves in the scalp communicate with the vasovagal nerve which regulates our heart rate and blood pressure. When those nerves are over-stimulated or stressed, i.e., hair-grooming or fear of it, a person’s blood pressure drops, the heart rate lowers and they become nauseous, dizzy, experience tunnel or blurred vision, and look very pale. And then the person goes unconscious. Seizure-like symptoms can also occur and are sometimes misdiagnosed as epilepsy.
A 2009 study looked at over 1,500 cases of pediatric syncope (fainting) and reported that 111 of those cases were from hair-grooming syncope. The gender-binary study indicated that 78% of the children who were triggered by hair grooming were girls. The boys who experienced syncope were more likely to faint while having their hair cut versus combed or brushed.
Because pediatricians only see a few children a year for this bizarre occurrence, many people have never heard of it. But Candee Kline, mother of three, is very aware of hair-grooming syncope. When Kline was braiding her 9-year-old daughter’s hair before school one morning she noticed that her daughter, Ema, was swaying.
“I could see her face through the mirror we were in front of, and her eyes were closed and I could tell her face and lips were very pale. At that time she was still coherent and she said she couldn’t see very well and felt funny. I determined that she was probably about to black out so I had her sit on the toilet with her head down between her knees and take some deep breaths.”
Kline gave Ema a minute to compose herself, but when she stood up, she fell into Kline’s arms and started to convulse. By the time the first responders arrived at the house, Ema was awake and answering simple questions, but upon the medics’ advice, Kline took Ema to the emergency room. And similar to Phillips’ story about her sister Gracie, blood tests, EKG (electrocardiogram), and an EEG (electroencephalogram) all revealed that Ema was fine. The doctors determined that the hair braiding triggered Ema to pass out and the seizure was a secondary reaction due to the fainting.
Pain, stimulation, and fear are all possible reasons for kids to faint while having their hair done. And if a child has fainted once before, then that fear is heightened—resulting in perfect conditions for another episode and continuous cycle of fainting when hair has to be brushed or cut. This is similar to seeing blood or having blood drawn. We stress ourselves to the point of triggering the vasovagal nerve. A visit to your child’s pediatrician will rule out any other underlying reasons for your child to have fainted, but a trip to the ER is not usually necessary. Most kids will out-grow hair-grooming syncope by their mid-teens.
If your child starts to feel faint, the Mayo Clinic recommends they lie down and lift their legs. This allows gravity to keep blood pumping to the brain. If this is not an option, sitting with their head between their knees helps too. Susan Etheridge, a pediatric cardiologist with Primary Children’s Medical Center, says food and water prior to hair grooming may help too.
“[Kids] groom in the morning, so they probably haven’t eaten or had anything to drink. That’s why it would be more likely to happen during hair grooming than other parts of the day.” She also mentions that a cool room and sitting during hair grooming could also reduce the risk of fainting.
Candee Kline told Scary Mommy that Ema is now 13 and has not had another hair-grooming syncope spell. She offers this advice: “I really don’t know that you can prepare for it to happen. Just make sure that if your child begins to feel faint or gets hot flashes or anything out of the ordinary while doing her hair….STOP! The cute braid, ponytail or messy bun isn’t worth the risk!”