You’ve probably noticed that most things end up in your toddler’s mouth at some stage. “Babies and children have a psychological desire to explore. They need to explore to learn,” says psychologist and child behaviour expert Corrine Sweet ( “If an object is bright, sparkly, shiny, round, smelly or interesting, your child wants to touch it – and he puts it in his mouth because he doesn’t have the intellectual capacity to understand what it is. This is his way of finding out.” That’s fine when the object is soft and safe, but what about when it’s something that could be dangerous? These are the most common things your tot is likely to pick up and what you should do if he swallows them.

Teach your tot to beware yummy looking berries

Berries and leaves

Sometimes dangerous.

What to do:

“Although berries aren’t usually a risk in terms of shape or size, they can be poisonous. There’s also a danger that your child might have inhaled the berry into his lungs rather than swallowed it, which can cause breathing problems,” says Arabella Sargent, a GP specialising in paediatrics. Ivy, deadly nightshade (belladonna) and elderberry are just some of the common plants that produce tempting but toxic berries. If you’re in any doubt, seek medical help.

“If he’s been choking or coughing at all, looks uncomfortable, goes pale or blue, or starts frothing at the mouth, you should take him to A&E with a sample of the berry if possible,” says Dr Sargent. If you don’t know what plants you have in your garden and how toxic they could be, invite a gardener friend round to identify them.

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Sand and soil

Not dangerous on it’s own.

What to do:

“Eating sand and soil is very common in children and babies, because they’re readily available outside,” says Corrine Sweet. While it’s unpleasant, it’s only a threat because of what could be hidden inside – for example if a cat’s used a sandpit for a loo. There is a risk of toxocariasis or toxoplasmosis from eating cat poo (see later for a note on that). Checking the sandpit before the children play is the best way to avoid other nasties such as bugs, litter or even glass.

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Bugs and worms

Not dangerous.

What to do:

The good news is, unless you’re in the Australian outback or the Amazonian Rainforest, most bugs and creepy crawlies are usually harmless.

“Eating something like creepy crawlies is just natural curiosity,” says Corrine Sweet. “The inside of your tot’s stomach is extremely acidic and very good at killing off anything he eats,” adds Dr Sargent. A drink of water can take away any nasty tastes.


Dog or cat poo

Rarely dangerous.

What to do:

Gross as it is, poo isn’t usually anything to worry about. However, if it’s touched or eaten there is a small risk of toxoplasmosis (from cat poo) and toxocariasis (from cat and dog poo). These infections affect 20 children a year and in general cause flu-like symptoms.

“Our guts are designed to cope with eating bacteria – and once it’s eaten it’s eaten,” says Dr Arabella Sargent. “You need to wash his hands as soon as possible to minimise the risk of infection. If he starts vomiting or has diarrhoea, make sure he doesn’t get dehydrated, and take him to see your GP.”

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What to do:

“Batteries – particularly button or disc batteries – can be very dangerous,” says Dr Sargent. “They contain acid or alkali, which can erode the lining of the gut and poison the child. If the battery is still in his mouth, fish it out. But if he’s swallowed it get him to A&E as quickly as possible.”

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Cigarette ends


What to do:

As well as being a choking hazard cigarette ends can be poisonous to your child, too. The filter tips of cigarettes contain a collection of harmful chemicals and particles, which is why it’s important to get your child checked over at your GP or A&E as soon as possible if he eats a cigarette butt. Symptoms from ingesting cigarettes include vomiting, nausea, lethargy, gagging, and a pale or flushed appearance.


Twigs and grass

Not dangerous but be careful of size.

What to do:

“If your child has eaten some grass, or a twig less than 6cm long, it probably isn’t anything to worry about,” says Dr Arabella Sargent. Anything longer could stick in his throat. Check his mouth and that he’s not in pain. If he is, head to A&E.

Set a good example. Make sure your child sees you eating fruit, rather than chocolate or biscuits.

Ways to avoid unsuitable snacks

Child and wellbeing psychologist Dr Maggie Redshaw from the Pampers Village Parenting Panel advises:

  • Vigilance - children will see things at their level you might have missed.
  • Risk assessment - cast your eyes around and double check for any nasties.
  • Distract him - offering an alternative takes his mind off what he’s after.
  • Be serious - he’ll see laughter as a positive way of getting your attention, so if you laugh at what he’s eaten you’ll encourage him to do it again.
  • Keep calm - take the object out of his mouth as gently as you can to avoid frightening him.
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Mum says...

“Sadie is putting everything in her mouth at the moment and we have to keep a very close eye on her. We don’t have any pets but the local cats use our garden as a loo. My husband Andy mows the grass really short as soon as the weather’s good enough for the kids to play outside and that way we can pick up any poo as soon as we spot it.

But Sadie still manages to put leaves and twigs in her mouth. Fortunately she hasn’t eaten any berries yet. If I do see her looking at them I divert her attention away by tickling her. If she plays in a sandpit and puts her hand in her mouth I always wash her hands afterwards and give her a drink. I try not to get uptight about it. I’m a firm believer that exposure to some germs makes your immune system stronger.”


Samantha Miller, 39, from Middlesex, mum to Max, 4, and Sadie, 18 months.