Your child might choke

When I read this column on the Dutch newspaper NRC’s website, I felt this was so accurate and recognisable that it deserved a translation into English. When I said this in a tweet, author and microbiologist Rosanne Hertzberger responded that she would love a translation. So, here you go:

We bought an inflatable paddling pool for our eldest. It’s a miracle he survived. On the blue plastic warnings were printed in 27 different languages. ‘Without adult supervision, your child’s life is in danger’ and ‘Children have drowned in portable swimming pools’. This is the tone manufacturers use when talking to parents. ‘Just use some common sense’ isn’t cutting it anymore. Similar to images of cancerous lungs being printed on cigarette packs, paddling pools are covered in obituaries of drowned children. There were other warnings printed on the pool: children might swallow small parts. And older children might get paralysed if they decide to dive into the 7-inch-deep pool. ‘Inflate your fun’ was the product slogan.

We never really get used to the permanent danger our children are in. Especially the youngest is continuously balancing between life and death. Fortunately, for mums that aren’t aware of this danger 24-7, there are plenty of warnings to remind you. Your child might suffocate in the baby carrier. Fall out of his high chair. Get strangled by the straps. Pull plastic packaging over his head. And might swallow everything smaller than a tennis ball. And when you dress your baby too warmly for the night, this does not just make him a bit uncomfortable. No, it could cause SIDS. Never ever expose your child to the sun – not for one second. Not just because a little redness hurts – no, the sun causes cancer, and cancer kills.

Boil your bottles. Boil your dummies. Boil your breast pump, three times a day and then again. Warm your bottle, but beware of hot spots – this might scald your child’s tongue. Take a children’s first aid course in case he chokes while drinking. And pour your breast milk down the sink after an hour – breast milk doesn’t just get a little sour, no, in no time there’s deadly bacteria swimming round in there. Breastfeeding is putting your child in danger, but bottle-feeding is even worse.

And yes, also after dark death is trying to creep into your house. We all know the most important risk factors: babies sleeping on their front, smoking, duvets. But there’s more that you can do. The best nurseries look like a solitary confinement cell. No toys, no stuffed animals. And always keep your baby close. Did you know that children have died because of bumpers? The safest sleep is when a parent is closely watching the baby. Even the manufacturer of a travel cot assured me that without supervision, my child is in danger. (I have to admit that I might have closed my eyes for a second.) But too close is also dangerous. You could fall asleep on top of your baby after breastfeeding. It is of the utmost importance to stay awake – use pain stimuli, flashing lights, loud music. Or only feed while sitting strictly upright in a rigid chair. It’s really not just elephants that accidentally suffocate their babies.

The worst thing is, this scaremongering is actually working. Warnings only have winners. Every year, fewer babies are dying because of the permanent state of emergency in households with young children. In 1985 191 babies died of SIDS in the Netherlands, in 1995 that number was reduced to 48, and in 2001 to only 7. We’ve almost won, seemingly for free. The impact of the scaremongering is hard to measure though. And even if it was, who cares about a few anxious nights, sleep-deprivation, or that tiny loss of naive joy, if you can prevent one child from dying a year. Or half a child. Or a tenth.

So say it with me and repeat a thousand times: my child might choke. My child might fall. My child might turn on his front and die. Sleep means danger, but you should still remember to sleep a lot, because not sleeping is even worse. Sleep-deprived mums make mistakes, and mistakes lead to death. After short nights full of feverish dreams about dead babies, you might well get frustrated. But please put your screaming child in his bed and try to calm down somewhere else, for safeties’ sake. It wouldn’t be the first time that a desperate mum kills her baby by shaking him. By the way, do you ever feel overly worried? Anxious? Because that is also extremely dangerous – you might be depressed. And we all know what depressed mothers can do.


Dutch author and microbiologist Rosanne Hertzberger (from

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