Soap, dirt, sand, shoes, dog tails, cat food … these are just some of the objects that I’ve seen popped into the mouths of babies, with no obvious ill effects.
Babies explore their surroundings through their senses, and the sensitive, nerve-rich tongue and mouth are perfect for investigating the important questions: Is it hard or soft? Does it taste nice? This is called ‘mouthing’ and it’s normal exploratory behaviour in babies and toddlers. It tails off by the age of two, by which time toddlers’ hands are better at manipulating and exploring objects, and their mouths are not quite so useful in this regard.
Chewing on hard objects will also ease the discomfort of a tooth pushing through the gum. Babies, or course, can’t tell the difference between a well-sterilised teething ring and your briefcase.
This impulse to put everything and anything into the mouth definitely does come with dangers. These range from the minor (the mild disgust engendered in anyone watching) to the potentially life threatening.
Choking is the biggest concern. According to US statistics, choking is a leading cause of death in children under the age of four. Most commonly, though, they choke on food, particularly hot dogs, nuts, hard sweets, raw carrots and marshmallows.
According to SafeKids UK, coins are the main culprits of non-food-related choking in young children. Other small objects like popped balloons and pen lids are also potentially dangerous. Toys account for only a small percentage of choking accidents, but do keep babies away from those that have small parts. Vigilance is important if there are older kids – and their toys in the house.
Keep it clean
While no one likes to see their toddler gnawing on the garden hose, a bit of dirt is unlikely to have any ill effects. Viruses and bacteria are what make kids sick, so the items that you really want to avoid your baby putting in her mouth are things like poorly sterilised bottles, toys that have been played with by sick kids, and things like door handles and supermarket trolleys that are touched by lots of people.
Some medical researchers believe that today’s kids are at risk of having too little exposure to dirt and germs. The theory – called the Hygiene Hypothesis – is that early exposure to microbes is necessary for the healthy development of the immune system, and that protecting children from reasonable exposure to normal dirt, animals and harmless bacteria and germs may be contributing to the growth in asthma. Various studies have shown that people who grew up on farms, or with pets, or in larger families (conditions that are likely to expose them to plenty of bugs and dirt) were less prone to allergies and asthma.
This is not to say that you should let your kids go ahead and snack on those snails and shoes! But take comfort in the fact that ill-effects are rare and she may even be getting some immune-boosting benefits.
What if she swallows it?
If you know your baby has swallowed an object, it’s best to consult your doctor, says Isabel Thompson, a GP in private practice at the Park Lane Clinic. A small object that is not inherently dangerous – a small marble, for instance – may well pass through on its own without doing any damage. Says Dr Thompson: “Generally, if children can swallow it, they can poo it out. Your doctor may advise you to just monitor your child and see that the object comes out.” While you wait and check her nappy or potty, be aware of any concerning symptoms like vomiting, fever, loss of appetite, drooling, coughing, wheezing or difficulty swallowing, which could indicate that the item has become lodged somewhere in her body.
It’s a different matter if your child has swallowed something dangerous like a magnet, a battery, or something sharp, says Dr Thompson. In this case, go to the emergency room. An X-ray or scan may be necessary to determine where the object is and whether it’s a danger. Your doctor will then determine whether it needs to be removed, and what the best way of doing this is.
If your baby swallows anything that may be poisonous, for example, medication, seek medical attention immediately. Just one or two pills in a baby’s small body can be fatal. Take your child and the medication to the emergency room. The same goes for poisonous plants.
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