What Is Childhood Absence Epilepsy?

Kids with childhood absence epilepsy (CAE) have seizures where they "blank out" for a few seconds. Most kids with the typical form of CAE will grow out of the seizures in adolescence.

What Do Absence Seizures Look Like?

Absence seizures look like staring spells. They can happen up to 100 times a day. Because the seizures can look like daydreaming, they often go unnoticed. Sometimes, they're misdiagnosed as ADHD.

A typical absence seizure starts suddenly in the middle of activity and ends abruptly. During one, a child might:

  • "blank out" or have staring spells that last 3 to 15 seconds
  • have fluttering eyes or look upward
  • not be aware of what's going on during the seizure
  • return immediately to normal activity after the seizure and not know a seizure happened

Some children also blink repetitively, smack or chew on their lips, or rub their hands together. These are called automatisms.

What Causes Childhood Absence Epilepsy?

CAE is caused by genetic changes or mutations. Many children have a relative with CAE. Sometimes kids with absence seizures can have other types of seizures too.

How Is Childhood Absence Epilepsy Diagnosed?

CAE is diagnosed by a pediatric neurologist (a doctor who specializes in brain, spine, and nervous system problems). Breathing very fast (hyperventilating) can bring on absence seizures in most kids with CAE. So the doctor may ask a child to do this in the office or before some tests.

Further testing may include:

  • EEG, or electroencephalography (to see brain waves/electrical activity in the brain)
  • VEEG, or video electroencephalography (EEG with video recording)
  • MRI scans are rarely needed in this condition

How Is Childhood Absence Epilepsy Treated?

Absence seizures usually get better with medicines. If medicines don't control the seizures, sometimes doctors will prescribe a special diet, such as a ketogenic diet. A ketogenic diet is a strict high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet that can sometimes reduce seizures.

How Can I Help My Child?

Kids with typical childhood absence epilepsy almost always lead a normal life. To help your child, make sure he or she:

  • takes medicines as prescribed
  • avoids known seizure triggers such as lack of sleep or stress

Some kids with childhood absence epilepsy have trouble with learning, behavior, concentration, and attention. Get help from tutors and specialists early on to support academic, social, and emotional success.

It's important to keep your child safe during a seizure. So make sure that other adults and caregivers (family members, babysitters, teachers, coaches, etc.) know what to do. Unlike other types of seizures, CAE is rarely associated with injury during a seizure.

Back to Articles

Related Articles

Benign Rolandic Epilepsy

Kids with benign rolandic epilepsy of childhood (BREC) have seizures that involve twitching, numbness, or tingling of the face or tongue.

Read More


Seizures are a common symptom of epilepsy, a condition that affects millions of people worldwide. Learn all about epilepsy, including what to do if you see someone having a seizure.

Read More


It comes from a Greek word meaning "to hold or seize," and seizures are what happen to people with epilepsy. Learn more about epilepsy in this article written just for kids.

Read More


Epilepsy causes electrical signals in the brain to misfire, which can lead to multiple seizures. Anyone can get epilepsy at any age, but most new diagnoses are in kids.

Read More

Epilepsy Factsheet (for Schools)

What teachers should know about epilepsy, and what they can do to help students with the condition succeed in school.

Read More

Epilepsy Surgery

Epilepsy surgery is an operation done on the brain to reduce or stop seizures.

Read More

Intractable Epilepsy

Intractable epilepsy is when a child's seizures can't be controlled by medicines. Doctors may recommend surgery or other treatments for intractable seizures.

Read More

Juvenile Myoclonic Epilepsy

Kids with juvenile myoclonic epilepsy (JME) have one or more of several different kinds of seizures, which begin around the age of puberty.

Read More

Temporal Lobe Epilepsy

Kids with temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE) have seizures that start in one of the temporal lobes of the brain. Seizures usually get better with medicine.

Read More

Brain and Nervous System

The brain controls everything we do, and is often likened to the central computer within a vast, complicated communication network, working at lightning speed.

Read More

Brain and Nervous System

If the brain is a central computer that controls all the functions of the body, then the nervous system is like a network that relays messages back and forth to different parts of the body. Find out how they work in this Body Basics article.

Read More

First Aid: Seizures

Although seizures can be frightening, usually they last only a few minutes, stop on their own, and are almost never life-threatening.

Read More


Seizures are caused by a sudden surge of electrical activity in the brain. Find out what you need to know about seizures and what to do if your child has one.

Read More

Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor. © 1995-2020 KidsHealth®. All rights reserved. Images provided by The Nemours Foundation, iStock, Getty Images, Veer, Shutterstock, and Clipart.com.

Search our entire site.