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Poison Prevention Tips for Teen Babysitters

Keeping children safe might not be as simple as you think

Poison Prevention Tips for Teen Babysitters

Babysitting is a time-honored way for teenagers to make money and contribute a valued service to their communities. But caring for a child is a huge responsibility. Natalie Ebeling-Koning, DO, a Medical Toxicology Fellow with Lehigh Valley Health Network (LVHN), knows firsthand. She was a babysitter herself starting at age 11. Now a health care professional specializing in toxicology, Dr. Ebeling-Koning thinks back to those days with some concern.

“Even parents aren’t always as well informed about poisoning risks as they should be,” Dr. Ebeling-Koning says, “but the particular issue with teenagers is their general lack of life experience. They might not be familiar with just how quickly a young child can get into trouble.”

It happens far too often.

“It’s quite common to see children in the ER for accidental ingestions. I would estimate that the Breidegam Family Children's ER sees at least several cases per week,” Dr. Ebeling-Koning says.

One concern for a babysitter of any age is the challenge of caring for a young child in an environment you don’t know well.

Ask about where and how toxic substances are stored

“When you go into someone else’s house, you don’t know where or how they store medicines or chemicals. You don’t know what cabinets you need to be concerned about, so it’s important to discuss that with the parents,” Dr. Ebeling-Koning says.

Another key tip Dr. Ebeling-Koning shares is to watch out for dangerous substances stored in inappropriate containers — windshield washer fluid in a soda bottle, for example.

“Windshield washer fluid looks just like blue Gatorade, so if it’s in a Gatorade bottle, that’s a problem,” she says.

Dr. Ebeling-Koning sees both children and adults who have made this kind of mistake.

Don’t put your faith in ‘child-proof’ packaging

A similar problem concerns “child-proof” or “child-resistant” packaging. Don’t trust it. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has stated that “there is no such thing as child-proof packaging.” Such packaging is designed to impede children, but there are cases of children as young as 2 managing to figure it out.

“If you must administer medicine to a child, first of all, be very careful with the dosing and follow the instructions exactly,” Dr. Ebeling-Koning says. “Then, immediately close up the medicine and put it well out of reach.”

Beware of children confusing drugs with candy

Be thoughtful too about calling medicine “candy.” While that might encourage children to accept the medicine, it might also encourage them to look for more. And keep all “gummies” safely stored out of children’s reach.

“We see kids who have eaten THC products thinking they were candy,” Dr. Ebeling-Koning says.

A teen babysitter might not realize that many over-the-counter medicines can be dangerous for young children if taken inappropriately, as even adults commonly don’t realize the potential harm. These include Tylenol, aspirin and even vitamins.

“Ingestion of cigarettes or vape cartridge liquid also has the potential to be very toxic to kids,” Dr. Ebeling-Koning says.

Remember that plants can be toxic

With warmer days coming, children are more likely to be outside. In such cases, a babysitter needs to remember that there are serious threats in yards and gardens.

“Several common flowers are poisonous, including lily of the valley, oleander, wisteria, foxglove and rhododendron, to name just a few,” Dr. Ebeling-Koning says. “It’s not dangerous for children to touch them or even pick them, but they can cause toxicity if eaten.”

Also watch out for plants that look like food, including mushrooms and berry-like fruits that are not edible.

According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, the vast majority of poisoning cases involve common medications and household products. These five top the list:

  • Analgesics
  • Household cleaning products
  • Antidepressants
  • Cosmetics or personal care products
  • Antihistamines

Other things children should not ingest

Of course foreign objects, although not poisons, are another concern. Babysitters should keep an eye out for small toys and toy parts, silica gel packets, pen caps and glow sticks. Button batteries are especially dangerous, as are magnets and sharp objects like pins, tacks or nails.

What to do if you think a child has swallowed something harmful

If a child does get into trouble on your watch, what should you do?

“If there is an immediate safety concern, call 911, of course,” Dr. Ebeling-Koning says. “Otherwise, call Poison Control. It’s free and available 24/7. They’ll answer your questions, give you guidance.”

Make a note of the phone number for America’s Poison Centers and keep it handy: 1-800-222-1222. You can also get information on the web at

Many times you’ll find out that there’s no need for concern, but be safe rather than sorry.

Safe Sitter program at LVHN

Lehigh Valley Health Network offers the national Safe Sitter® Essentials program, which helps to prepare young adults ages 11 to 13 to be safe when they are babysitting, watching younger siblings, or home alone. Visit to learn more and register for a class.

Children’s ER

Lehigh Valley Reilly Children’s Hospital has the region’s only 24/7 emergency room dedicated to children. Located at Lehigh Valley Hospital–Cedar Crest and built just for kids, the new 27-bed Children’s ER opened summer 2021 and is staffed by board-certified pediatric emergency medicine physicians who skillfully and compassionately care for ill and injured kids.

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