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Why toddlers put stuff up their nose

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Pomegranate seeds. They seemed like a good idea at the time. They were a new food that my toddler was trying. (Score!) They were nutritious. (Hello, vitamins B and C!) And even better, they were tiny enough not to be choking hazards. (My biggest worry!)

My toddler was happily munching on the tiny, shiny red seeds and playing with them on the table—look, a bonus sensory activity!—when I got up to put the container back in the fridge and pet the dog. It took maybe 30 seconds, and during that time, I never left the room and was never more than 10 feet from him.

Which is why I was so confused when I got back to the table and found him sniffing strangely and swatting at his face. It took me a minute and a half-understandable toddler response to figure out that he had shoved a pomegranate seed up his nose. Seriously, kid?!

little girl with finger up her nose
10 most common things kids stick up their nose (other than fingers)
I eventually managed to get the seed out, but I was in shock. When I went on social media to commiserate later that night, I soon realized I wasn’t alone. A ridiculous amount of toddlers shove everything from tiny pieces of food to Lego parts and coins up their noses on the regular. Why? The answer seems to be: why not?

“Children learn by interacting with the environment and using all of their senses. Babies notoriously put everything in their mouths, and, as they get older, they will put things in other orifices, including the nose,” says Tricia Feener, a paediatrician in Corner Brook, Nfld., and a member of the CPS Public Education Advisory Committee. “That’s how children learn—they see things, taste them and feel them. It’s part of learning about the world around them, and it’s a natural curiosity that’s part of normal development.”

Which is all fine and good, except when something gets stuck up there. The good news is that most objects aren’t inherently harmful. Note: If you’re dealing with sharp objects, button batteries or magnets, which can damage tissue quickly, get to an ER or your nearest health facility—stat.

But if it’s your run-of-the-mill, relatively harmless household object and you can see it, Feener recommends a few strategies you can try at home before seeking outside help. First, tell your child to stop sniffing and instead breathe through their mouth. Then:

Ask your child to gently blow their nose

That’s easier said than done with a toddler, but if you can get them to do it, the air could move things safely out of the way.

Grab it with a pair of tweezers—but only if you can see it

If you can’t, stop: Those tweezers (or your fingers) could push the object dangerously deeper into the nasal cavity. If something is too far up or is stuck, you’ll need to see a doctor.

Try mouth-to-mouth

“While the child is seated or standing,” advises Feener, “the caregiver can try occluding the other nostril with their finger, firmly sealing their mouth over the child’s mouth and delivering a short, firm puff of air into the child’s mouth.”

Once the object’s out, how can you get your child to cut this out for good?

By doing exactly what you’re likely already doing to keep tiny objects out of a toddler’s mouth: be vigilant, baby-proof, confiscate small objects and toys, and confine your toddler to a safe area. And when you catch them trying to stick something in their mouth, nose or ears, calmly explain the importance of keeping things out of body parts. Then be prepared to explain it again and again (and again).

Also, don’t beat yourself up if you find yourself in this situation. “Life is life, and you’ll never be able to control all variables,” says Feener. “Ensure reasonable safety measures but realize accidents can happen.”

If and when they do, the most important thing is to stay calm, be smart and do what needs doing. You can drown your sorrows in chocolate and bad TV after you take care of business and your toddler is fast asleep—and not getting into the type of trouble that puts you perilously close to having a nervous breakdown.

Read more:
How to teach your child to blow her nose
Top choking hazards for kids

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I am a father of three and my wife is a registered nurse specialized in children.

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