Each year in the United States, 2.8 million children head to the emergency room for injuries related to a fall -- and among babies younger than one, falls account for more than half of all non-fatal injuries.
Anyone who has watched an infant no doubt understands why tumbles are relatively common. Look away for a split second, and a baby can roll off the couch, bed or changing table or slip out of his or her highchair.
"Anytime we talk about these types of injuries, we need to talk about prevention," Dr. Tony Woodward, chief of emergency medicine at Seattle Children’s Hospital and a professor of pediatric emergency medicine at the University of Washington, told The Huffington Post. "Children are usually one step ahead of where their parents think they are [developmentally]." In other words, you may not know your son is capable of rolling over -- until he does it while you're changing him, and ends up on the floor. That's why it is so important for caregivers to keep both a hand and an eye on their baby, Woodward urged.
But, of course, accidents still can and do happen. Here are Woodward's tips on what you should do after your baby falls:
Assess the circumstances.
Whether or not a baby is injured by a fall has a lot to do with how hard that fall was and what they landed on, Woodward said. If, for example, you assume that a changing table is roughly 3.5 feet, and a young baby is 1.5 feet tall, then falling from a changing table is the rough equivalent of an adult falling from a 10-foot high surface. "That's a long fall for a baby," Woodward said. Also, consider the landing surface. If your baby fell just a few inches and landed on something soft, like a carpet, that's likely a lot less serious than if she landed directly on a hard floor.
Look for obvious signs of injury.
Babies are "head heavy," Woodward warned, and they don't have the reflexes to help protect themselves (and their heads specifically), so that's one of the first areas to check for signs of injury, such as swelling, bruising or bleeding. But parents and caregivers should also tune in to less visual clues that something is amiss. Babies normally calm down when a loved one picks them up, "so if you pick your child up and he starts to cry, that's a sign of a possible bone injury," Woodward said.
A note of caution: If you think there's any chance of a neck injury (so, if you saw your baby's neck twist, or know she landed directly on her head), don't move her -- it can cause serious complications. Instead, call 911 and try to soothe her in place.
And then stay on the lookout.
Pay close attention to how your baby behaves beyond the immediate aftermath of the fall, Woodward says. If there are no obvious signs of injury, and he's acting fine, then there's probably not a lot you need to do. However, if your baby seems unusually subdued, dazed or sleepy or if he begins vomiting, get help right away.
When in doubt, call 911.
If the fall seemed really, really hard, or if you notice any of the major signs of trauma discussed above -- swelling, significant bleeding, crying out in pain when touched, fatigue, vomiting, etc. -- call 911, or take your baby to a pediatric urgent care center immediately. "If you're worried at all, get your child to a place where he or she can be evaluated," Woodward said. And he added that it is important to make sure any caregivers watching your child know that in an emergency, their first call should always be to 911 first to get help on the way ASAP, and to you second.
If the injury doesn't seem particularly serious but you still have concerns, it's OK to call your pediatrician (instead of 911) and he or she will be able to tell you whether you need to get your baby in to see someone soon, Woodward said. Ultimately, he added, babies are tougher than we think -- they tend to have a fair amount of padding and their bodies bend easily -- and those are attributes that generally allow them to recover from falls without too much trouble.
But, he added, if you're at all concerned, "having a medical eye look [at your baby] is better than not."
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