young boy in panic pediatric emergencyWe buckle, pad, bundle, and tuck. But even the most diligent parent knows, sometimes accidents just happen. And while you may not be able to prevent every emergency, knowing what to do when one occurs can keep the situation manageable.

The first step in any emergency is assessing the severity of the injury. In his book, “Your Child’s Health: The Parents’ Guide to Symptoms, Emergencies, Common Illnesses, Behavior, and School Problems,” author Barton D. Schmitt, MD, urges parents to immediately call 911 for any life-threatening emergency. This includes severe breathing or choking problems; loss of consciousness; ongoing seizure; bleeding that can’t be stopped by direct pressure; or any kind of major trauma.

If an injury isn’t life threatening, it’s always best to check with your doctor before heading to the emergency room. “A parent’s first call should be to their child’s private physician,” says Ernest Leva, M.D., FAAP, chief of the Division of Pediatric Emergency Medicine at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital and director of the Pediatric Emergency Medicine Program at the University of Medicine & Dentistry of New Jersey. “Many times a child can be treated without going anywhere.”

A little expert advice and some first-aid know-how usually can stabilize the situation. Although there are dozens of pediatric emergencies, some common ones include:

Minor burns

Pain is usually why parents bring children to the ER for a burn, says Dr. Leva. “If burns are relatively minor, you can usually wash them with soap and water and give Tylenol or Ibuprofen for pain.” It’s also okay to dab antibacterial ointment on open areas, but if there’s blistering or the burn is extensive, he says, a doctor should evaluate it. 

Cuts & scrapes

Thoroughly clean all wounds with soap and water to prevent infection and lessen the risk of scarring. Stitches often aren’t necessary and may increase the risk of infection, but facial lacerations longer than three-quarters of an inch, deep wounds, and those that won’t stop bleeding need medical attention.

Head trauma

Because the head has lots of blood vessels, even mild injuries may bleed or swell like a goose egg. “As long as your child is awake and alert, hasn’t passed out or vomited, and has no significant headache, then there’s no need to go to the emergency room,” Leva says. Still, watch closely for any change in behavior over the next 24 hours. “Call 911 immediately if a child passes out, vomits, or is unable to move any part of their body following a head injury,” he says. Children under 1 year of age should always see a doctor.

Trust your instincts. If something doesn’t seem right, don’t hesitate to call your family doctor or head to an ER or urgent care center for professional advice.


The American Association of Poison Control Centers gets about 11,000 calls per day, about half of them concerning kids under age 6. Keep this number by the phone. If you suspect your child has ingested a dangerous substance, call immediately: 800/222-1222.

Be prepared

Injuries and emergencies are frightening for everyone, but children take their cue from parents. Remaining calm and ‚Ä®deliberate during a scary situation is ‚Ä®reassuring to your child. 

Call for help 

Store ICE (In Case of Emergency) numbers in your cell phone and/or keep an updated list in a central location. Include daytime and after-hours numbers for your pediatrician, poison control, local hospital, police, fire department, and  family members or friends you can contact for babysitting or other assistance.

Pack your bags 

Prepare a first aid kit you can quickly grab in emergencies. You won’t have to scramble for items like Band-Aids, sterile bandages, antibiotic ointment, eyewash, antiseptic gel, swabs, tweezers, or instant cold packs. This small kit also can easily go on family outings. You also could include stickers or a small toy for comfort.

Get smart 

Arm yourself with information by taking a CPR or first-aid class.

Make a plan 

Ask your child’s doctor in advance what you should do in an emergency. Discuss when to call the office and when to contact a hospital or urgent care center. This is especially important if your child has a known health issue, such as asthma.

In what other ways do you prepare for pediatric emergencies?