Emergency care and first aid: Be ready
by Barbara Langham
An accident involving a child can be frightening, even for the most experienced caregiver. Questions flash to mind: Is the child hurt? What happened? What should I do?
With proper training, caregivers and teachers can recognize when an accident is serious, respond quickly and appropriately, and get help if necessary. Training makes us more alert to potential accidents and injury and can lessen anxiety about how to respond. Giving first aid can help alleviate pain, keep an injury from getting worse, and save a life.
Standards reduce injury risks
Few children get through childhood without injury, and accidents can happen regardless of where they are—at home, in school, at a friend’s house, or in a park or other public place. But we all share responsibility for keeping children safe and responding to illness and injury when necessary.
Texas, like other states, requires child care programs to follow minimum standards to reduce risks of injury to children. These standards specify such things as background checks of potential employees, training of workers, child-to-staff ratios, and safety practices, including training every staff member in CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) and first aid.
Thorough and timely training—pre-service, orientation, and periodically thereafter—reduces risks of injury in key situations. Some examples: Caregivers know to put infants to sleep on their backs, even when a mom says, “She always sleeps on her tummy,” because back sleeping has been proven to reduce SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome). Caregivers know to provide careful supervision at all times, including during outdoor play when they may be tempted to chat with others or check their cell phones. And caregivers know to give positive behavior guidance and not resort to yelling or hitting.
In Texas CPR training must follow guidelines established by the American Heart Association and consist of a curriculum that includes use of a CPR mannequin. (See Licensing Rule 744.1315.) Staff will better remember how to administer first aid by periodically reviewing key principles in staff meetings or self-study. A helpful guide is Pediatric First Aid/CPR/AED Ready Reference, a 12-page, color-illustrated publication available for purchase ($3.95) from the American Red Cross.
Ideally you will have a first aid kit in every building of your program and in every vehicle that may transport children. Kits are available for purchase from the Red Cross or a drug store. You can also assemble a kit yourself with items recommended by the Red Cross. (In Texas, the kit must contain items listed in Rule 746.4003.)
One piece of equipment not required in Texas child care programs is an AED (automated external defibrillator). This device, which checks the heart’s rhythm and sends an electrical signal to the heart if necessary to restore rhythm, is rarely used on children. But it’s easy to use, and trainers typically include its use in classes. All 50 states require public places, such as government offices, businesses, and schools, to have an AED on hand. If your program does not have one, it’s good to know in advance where to borrow one in case of an emergency.
Knowing when to give CPR
Minor cuts, scratches, and bruises are common in children’s active play. When is an accident or injury serious?
Texas defines the term as needing “treatment by a medical or mental health professional.” (See substantial harm in Definition of Terms at www.dfps.state.tx.us/handbooks/CCI/Files/LPPH_px_Definitions_of_Terms.asp).
One critical assessment is the child’s responsiveness and breathing: If a child is unresponsive and not breathing or only gasping, give CPR. Unresponsive means not moving, crying, speaking, blinking, or otherwise reacting when you tap the shoulder or call the child by name. If the child is responsive, you can roll the child onto one side to keep the airway clear in case the child vomits.
“Children usually have healthy hearts,” says the heart association. “Often a child’s heart stops because the child can’t breathe or is having trouble breathing,” such as in choking, near drowning, severe asthma attack, or smoke inhalation. But breathing and heart problems may also stem from electrical shock, poisoning, or SIDS.
If you’re in doubt, provide CPR anyway, says the heart association: “It is better to give CPR to a child who doesn’t need it than not to give it to a child who does need it.” Furthermore, “CPR is not likely to cause harm if the child is not in cardiac arrest.”
What’s different about pediatric CPR?
Pediatric CPR differs from adult CPR in several ways, and differences also exist between CPR for an infant (1 month to 12 months old) and CPR for a child (12 months to puberty). The pediatric differences appear here.
Compressions for an infant: Use only two fingers of one hand, and push down only about 1 1/2 inches on the chest. According to the heart association: “It’s better to push too hard than not hard enough.”
Providing CPR keeps oxygenated blood flowing to the brain and other vital organs. Doing without oxygen for even a few minutes can cause permanent brain damage or death. Consequently, “CPR with both compressions and breaths is the most important thing you can do for an infant in cardiac arrest,” says the heart association. Don’t delay CPR to call 9-1 or get an AED. In a child care center or school, chances are other adults will be nearby who can do that.
If you’re alone, put your cell phone on speaker mode, call 9-1-1, and start CPR. If you don’t have a phone handy, do 5 sets of CPR and breaths and then carry the infant (if not injured) with you as you look for a phone and an AED. After calling 9-1-1, return to providing CPR.
Giving breaths to an infant: In the head-tilt-chin-lift technique, the heart associations warns, tilting the head back too far can close the airway and keep your breaths from going into the child’s lungs. Pressing into the soft part of the neck or under the chin can also close the airway.
Compressions for a child: Use one hand on a smaller child and two hands on a larger child. Push down 2 inches, the same as on an adult.
Using an AED with infants and children. Some AEDs come with child pads or a child-cable key or switch. If so, use them on infants and children younger than 8 years old. If the AED has no accommodation for children, use the adult pads and give the adult dose. If the child’s chest is small, the pads may overlap. If so, put one pad on the child’s chest and the other on the child’s back.
Childhood choking incidents are commonly linked to raw fruits and vegetables or small objects like beads or marbles. In a severe blockage, the infant or child cannot breathe, talk, or make sounds. In some cases, a child may be holding the neck with one or both hands.
For an infant: Hold the infant face down on your forearm, using your hand to support the infant’s head and jaw. With the heel of your other hand, give up to 5 back slaps between the shoulder blades.
If the object does not come out, turn the infant back side down on your forearm, supporting the head with your hand. Using two fingers of your other hand, push on the chest below the breast bone (the same place you push during CPR) 5 times.
Repeat giving 5 back slaps and 5 chest thrusts until the infant can breathe, cough, or cry.
If the infant becomes unresponsive, give CPR and breaths. Every time you open the airway to give breaths, look for the object in the back of the throat. If you can see the object, take it out. But do not do a blind finger sweep. This could cause the object to lodge farther back in the airway.
For a child: Kneel behind the child, and give thrusts with your fist slightly above the belly button. This is the Heimlich maneuver. If the child becomes unresponsive, begin CPR.
A child can also appear to be choking because of an asthma attack. If so, follow the specific directions of the child’s parents and physician. These directions may include administering prescribed medication and encouraging the child to relax and breathe slowly.
Actual drowning, which results in death, occurs when too much water gets in the lungs. Near drowning is the last stage before that happens.
Children younger than 4 years old are at the highest risk of drowning and near drowning. They can drown in a few inches of water, and it can happen in seconds. The best solution is prevention.
To rescue, take the child out of the water. Place the child back side down on a firm surface. If the child is unresponsive and having trouble breathing, start CPR. Have someone call 9-1-1.
Shock is a life-threating condition that can accompany severe bleeding, severe allergic reactions, and other bodily trauma. When in shock, a person is not getting enough blood or oxygen to the brain and other organs.
Signs of shock in children may include the following:
pale or ashen skin
In case of shock, follow these guidelines:
Have someone call 9-1-1.
Unless you suspect spinal injury, lay the child down, and raise the legs slightly.
If the child is bleeding, apply pressure to the wound with a clean towel.
If the child is not breathing or showing any sign of life, begin CPR.
Cover the child with a blanket to retain body heat.
Don’t give the child anything to eat or drink.
If the child vomits or bleeds from the mouth, roll onto one side to prevent choking.
Reassure the child and stay until medical help arrives.
For children younger than 12, most electrical injuries are caused by playing with power cords on lamps or appliances. Injury from lightning, a natural form of electrical current, is rare—but can be extremely
Signs may include burns at the point of contact, such as the hands, lips, heels, or head. In case of strong electric current, the child may stop breathing, go into shock, or have cardiac arrest.
Your impulse may be to move the child away from the electricity source. But first you must stop the flow of electricity by unplugging the cord, turning off the circuit breaker, or using a wooden broomstick to move the child away from the current. Have someone call 9-1-1, and begin CPR if the child stops breathing or loses consciousness.
Burns are classified according to the depth and extent of injury. They range from first-degree burns, which involve the top skin layer, to third-degree burns, which destroy skin and underlying tissue.
If a burn penetrates all layers of skin or involves the hands, feet, genitals, or face, call 9-1-1, or see a doctor. Do the same if the burn covers 3 inches or more with blistering or charring (patches of white, brown, or black). Watch for signs of shock.
For all burns, including chemical burns, remember
Stop. Remove the child from the source of injury.
Cool. Apply clean, cool water—not ice—for at least 10 minutes.
Cover. Cover superficial burns loosely with sterile gauze. Contact parents to get authorization to apply antibiotic cream or other pain reliever.
Many cuts and bruises can be treated by cleaning them first with cool running water and washing with soap around the wound (not in it). Let it air dry or blot gently with gauze. Don’t use hydrogen peroxide or iodine; they can be too irritating.
To reduce pain and swelling, apply a cold pack. To make a cold pack, fill a plastic bag with a mixture of ice and water. Wrap the pack with a thin, dry towel. Hold it in place over the wound no more than 10 minutes.
Call a doctor if the wound:
spurts blood (may indicate a torn blood vessel).
is gaping open and may require stitches.
contains dirt or debris that you can’t get out.
is on the child’s face.
is on a joint (like an elbow) where movement can cause more bleeding.
If a cut won’t stop bleeding, apply pressure with a clean bandage or cloth. If the blood soaks through, place another bandage or pad over the first. (Pulling off the first bandage can interfere with clotting.) If you can’t stop the bleeding after 10 minutes of applying pressure, call 9-1-1.
Encourage parents to check with their doctor to see if tetanus immunization is current and the wound is treated properly. This is especially important if the wound is a puncture from a nail or similar object because it can carry germs deep into the body tissue.
Muscle, bone, and joint injuries
Injuries to muscles, bones, and joints are often caused by falls. One way to remember first aid for these injuries is RICE.
R. Rest (limit the use of) the injured body part.
I. Immobilize the body part with a splint (a folded newspaper held in place by strips of cloth).
C. Apply a cold pack wrapped in a thin, dry towel.
E. Elevate the injured body part to reduce swelling.
You can suspect a break when a child wails in pain and you observe a bone deformity, swelling, or skin discoloration. The child may or may not be able to move the injured limb. If using a splint, keep the injured part in the position in which you found it. Don’t try to move or straighten it.
Never move or pick up a child who complains of pain in the head, neck, or back. As long as breathing is normal, leave the child in the position in which you found him. Always assume the injury is serious. Call 9-1-1, keep the child quiet, and watch for signs of shock.
Concussions are common sports-related injuries, but they can happen whenever a child gets a bump or jolt to the head. Symptoms may include having trouble thinking or remembering, headache, vomiting, dizziness, and sensitivity to noise and light. A child may sleep more or less than usual and show changes in playing or eating habits. Have the child evaluated by a health care professional.
Practically anything can be a poison if it’s not meant to be taken into the body. Even a medication can be poisonous if too much is taken or the wrong person takes it. Children younger than 5 are at the highest risk for poisoning.
If you find a child with an open or empty container of a toxic substance, assume the child has swallowed it. Finger sweep a baby’s mouth to remove the substance; have older children spit it out. Signs may include vomiting, difficulty breathing, dizziness, and weakness.
Call the Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222, a national hotline available 24/7. Be prepared to give the child’s age and weight, the name of the substance, that approximate amount swallowed, and any symptoms the child may be having. Follow instructions on what to do.
Do not give any fluid (including water), food, or medication unless directed to do so by a medical authority.
Children are especially vulnerable to high temperatures (indoors as well as outdoors) and inadequate fluid intake. Illnesses that can result (in order of severity) are heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke. If not treated, heat cramps can morph into heat exhaustion or heat stroke.
A child with heat cramps may complain of painful muscle spasms, usually in the legs and abdomen. Move the child to a cool place to rest and offer a drink of plain water or an electrolyte-rich drink like Gatorade. After the cramps subside, the child can usually resume activity.
A child with heat exhaustion may have symptoms such as pale or flushed skin, headache, nausea, dizziness, and weakness. Move the child to a cool place and offer water. Don’t let the child drink too quickly. Apply cool, wet cloths to the child’s skin. Have the child wait several hours before resuming activity. If the child’s condition does not improve, all 9-1-1.
Heat stroke, a life-threatening condition, occurs when the body’s cooling system gets completely overwhelmed. The child will show signs of confusion, may have trouble seeing, go into a seizure, and feel hot to the touch. Call 9-1-1. While you wait for help to arrive, immerse the child up to the neck in cold water, if you can do this safely. Or place ice-water-soaked towels over the child’s entire body.
Contact the child’s parents
In Texas if an injury is serious—that is, requiring medical attention by a health care professional, calling 9-1-1, or giving CPR—you must contact the parents. You must also fill out an incident/illness report form and have it signed and dated by both the director and the parent.
If an injury is not life-threatening, such as a possible ankle sprain, you and parents can confer about how to handle the situation. The parents may choose to take the child to their doctor or an urgent care center themselves. Or they may agree to meet you at a designated clinic or physician’s office.
If the parents are not available, call the doctor whose contact information parents have given you at enrollment. The doctor’s office may advise you to call 9-1-1 or bring the child to the doctor’s office. (If you have already called 9-1-1, you don’t need to call the child’s doctor.)
Keep training current
The first aid procedures outlined here represent accepted principles in the United States, but changes may occur as medical knowledge and equipment advance. It’s your responsibility to stay current in first aid care.
American Heart Association. (2018). Heartsaver® CPR/AED Student Workbook. Dallas, TX: American Heart Association.
American Red Cross. (2016). First Aid/CPR/AED Participant’s Manual. Washington, DC: American Red Cross.
American Red Cross. (2016). Pediatric First Aid/CPR/AED Ready Reference. Washington, DC: American Red Cross.
Johns Hopkins Medicine. (Nov. 21, 2016). Treating children with electrical injuries, www.hopkinsmedicine.org/news/articles/treating-children-with-electrical-injuries.
Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. (December 2010). Minimum Standards for Child-Care Centers, https://tecpds.org/cctm/pdf/746_Centers.pdf.
WebMD. (2017). Drowning treatment, www.webmd.com/first-aid/drowning-treatment.
WebMD. (2018). Electric shock treatment, www.webmd.com/first-aid/electric-shock-treatment.
About the authors
Journal editors Louise Parks and Barbara Langham are certified by the American Red Cross in first aid/CPR/AED.