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So, You Dropped Your Baby…

Babies are surprisingly resilient, but these are the injuries to pay attention to.

Parents naturally feel immense worry and guilt when a moment’s inattention causes a baby to roll off the bed or to fall from a couch. Those emotions are wildly compounded when a baby falls or is accidentally dropped on their head. Perfect vigilance isn’t possible, and even the most attentive parents have had to soothe an infant after a fall — the truth is that babies are incredibly resilient, and in the vast majority of cases, there is no cause for concern. In the aftermath of a baby falling, what’s most important is calmly assessing the infant’s state and watching out for the few signs of serious injury that can occur in rare circumstances.

How to Prevent a Baby From Falling

The best scenario, of course, is for an infant never to fall — the most common cause of babies’ falling is a flash of inattention or parental fatigue. Most often, babies fall from beds, couches, or changing tables, or roll off a tired parent. In short, when parents multitask or feel rushed and tired, babies are much more likely to fall. The best solution to prevent dropping and falling is to remain attentive, use provided safety belts on changing tables and never fall asleep with a child on your chest. Most importantly, recognize that it’s just impossible for you to prevent anything bad from ever happening to your kid, explains pediatrician Dr. Jen Trachtenberg, author of The Smart Parent’s Guide: Getting Your Kids through Check Ups, Illnesses and Accidents.

“When you have a new baby, especially for the first time, and have to take care of all their needs, 24-7, there’s such overwhelming anxiety and fear that parents become paralyzed,” Trachtenberg says. “They’re scared that if anything happens they’re terrible parents. And that’s just not true.”

What Happens When a Baby Falls

If a baby falls or is dropped a short distance on to a soft surface, they are most likely completely fine. Parental anxiety can actually derail the calm, rational assessment that’s critical after a fall. Trachtenberg notes she frequently has to calm dads who are afraid of their kids’ necks flopping back and breaking or their “soft spot” popping. “It just doesn’t happen,” she tells them. The real danger occurs when a baby falls on to a hard surface from a height of 3 to 5 feet, or more. Broken limbs, retinal hemorrhages, skull fractures, brain damage or swelling, and internal bleeding are among the most severe risks associated with a serious fall. Luckily, these are rare and their effects can be minimized with decisive action.

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How to Respond When a Baby Falls

Parents should respond as calmly as possible when a baby falls, Trachtenberg explains. “You’re probably much more upset than the baby is. This is an accident, not ongoing toxic stress. If you have an appropriate response, that’s what will make them secure.” So take a deep breath, recover your fumble, and just hold them and try to calm them as you would if they were screaming at 2 a.m. You should be well-practiced at that. Then, assess the situation.

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If the baby calms down after a few minutes and is playing, smiling and distracted by toys as per usual, they are probably in the clear. Still, it’s important to check for bumps and bruises and move their arms and legs. If they’re acting like themselves, save yourself the trip to the ER. “There will always be accidents or mishaps or issues that come up along the way. It’s how you deal with them that’s actually important,” Trachtenberg explains.

That said, there are warning signs that should prompt a trip to the ER or a pediatrician. If a baby is vomiting or inconsolable, or has bumps, bruises, and does not seem to be themselves, a trip to the doctor is necessary. And don’t forget about the extremities. “Sometimes people get so worried about the head they forget about the arms and legs.” They won’t move one if it really hurts, which can be a sign of a more serious injury.