When Flea was about six weeks old, I spent an evening in a draughty church hall in Brighton, with 11 other new parents and a registered nurse. Over a period of three hours, we were taught the basics of paediatric emergency first aid – what to do if your baby stops breathing, what if they choke, what if they fall down the stairs, get scalded.
The course was run by a company called Safety Angels, and each of us paid £50 to attend the workshop. Expensive, but given the number of times I’ve used the advice and techniques I learned there, I think it’s the best money I’ve ever spent.
Lots of the things I learned have been burned into my brain. The best way to see if a baby is unconscious is to tap the bottoms of their feet firmly and say their name loudly – even if they’re deeply asleep they should respond (I'm embarrassed to admit how often I did this to poor baby Flea to make sure she was still alive). To be effective, chest thrusts (below the nipples, upwards) need to be WAY harder than you'd imagine.
We learned practical techniques like how to hold a baby when it's choking (belly down, along your forearm, with the head lower than the bottom) as opposed to a child (kneel down with your arm across their upper belly, bend them forward and give them three sharp back blows, while encouraging them to cough). And always, always slice grapes lengthwise, not across.
I remember the nurse telling us that the single most common thing for children to choke to death on is grapes. They’re just the right shape to get stuck and the texture means that you can’t always remove them with first aid. The horrible thing about choking on grapes (along with hot dog sausages and marshmallows) is that by the time a doctor is able to remove the blockage, the child may have been starved of oxygen for long enough that they die a few days later, from brain damage.
I’ve always been amazed by how few parents seem to have this sort of knowledge. But I recently looked online for a refresher first aid course (now Flea’s older, I know some of the resuscitation techniques are different, for example) and I was shocked by how few and far between they seem to be.
The nearest course to me was in the evening, 50 miles away, and not for another three months. Oh, and it was aimed at professionals, so it cost over £200. The St John’s Ambulance apparently runs paediatric first aid courses, but the website didn’t list any courses anywhere North of Watford for the whole of 2010 last time I checked.
It makes me sad that it isn’t easier for parents to learn basic first aid. In many household accidents, knowing the basics could mean the difference between a child living and dying. So shouldn’t this sort of simple, practical life-saving knowledge be built into the ante-natal/post-natal routine?
In the meantime, there are some really great videos on the Red Cross website showing basic life-saving techniques for babies and children. I urge you to check them out – it's ten minutes out of your day, but one day it might make a real difference for someone in trouble.