My Son Ate a Penny. Now What?

Swallowing small objects is common amongst young children. I wish it wasn’t, but it is.

First thing you need to do, concerned mom or dad, is take a deep breath. Then sit back and read about the time my 18-month old son ate a rock, and what happened.

I had my two kids outside in the yard, playing happily. My son Ryan was about two and a half. His younger brother Thomas was about 15 months old or so. I was on the phone talking to my property manager, and walking around the driveway, keeping on eye on the kids.

I saw Thomas reach down and pick up a piece of gravel. Then I saw him pop it in his mouth. Both of my sons put TONS of small items in their mouths all the time. It was a never ending battle. Coins. Legos. Marbles. Small toys. Rocks. Dirt clods. Grass. Flowers. Literally. Anything they could find.

I put the phone between me ear and shoulder, and bent over to fish the rock out. As I reached in for the rock, I felt the tip of it. Then it disappeared. Thomas gave a bit of a “herk” sound, and I thought he was choking. I dropped the phone onto the ground and grabbed him. I did a sweep of his mouth and then flipped him over to try and start anti-choking procedures (I’ve had to use them before to clear airways), but he screamed at me. Clearly he wasn’t choking, so I put him down.

Confused, I picked up the phone and apologized to my forgotten property manager, who understood. I watched Thomas out of the corner of my eye as I finished my phone call, with furrowed brows. Did he just swallow a rock? Or did he spit it out?

I had no idea. So when I finished the call, I examined Thomas again. For all intents and purposes, he seemed to be exactly as he was before. Healthy, alert, and in no physical distress of any kind.

Nevertheless, I decided to call the “ask-a-nurse” hotline. This is a service through the local pediatrician’s office, where there’s no charge to call in and ask simple questions of the nurse. If the nurse can’t answer them, she’ll talk to one of the doctors and call us back.

When I finally got a nurse on the line (it took a while), I relayed the story. The first thing she did was recommend that I not worry. She said:

It is really common for small children to swallow small items. After all, they put so much in their mouth. Generally, the plan when small children swallow things is to watch and wait. In most cases, if the item was small enough to go in without blocking anything, it is also small enough to come out on its own.

Meaning, if he could swallow it easily, he can poop it out easily. She told me to watch his poop carefully for the next week or so. However, if he exhibited any of some specific signs, I was to call the office or bring him in to see the doctor (or even to the emergency room). Those signs were:

  • Drooling excessively (more than normal)
  • Vomiting
  • Refusing to eat food, drink, or nurse
  • Labored breathing
  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Trouble swallowing

I thanked the nurse, and hung up. I felt better, but was still annoyed with myself for letting it happen.

I watched Thomas carefully that night, but he seemed fine. The next day, however, Thomas did not seem fine. He was fussy, and started running a fever. During his nap, he threw up in his crib. I decided to call the nurse again. When I related his symptoms, she recommended that I bring him in immediately to get looked at.

This is how I found myself spending close to six hours in the ER, waiting for a chance to get his x-ray (or whatever scan they were going to perform). We checked in and after triage, we had to wait along with everyone else who had questionably urgent conditions, watching ambulances arrive and deliver strangers on gurneys in varying stages or illness or hurt.

Eventually a nurse came out, and asked us to come down the hall. He had decided to take us out of order, to help us get out of the ER. We’d been there a long time, and Thomas was very fussy. After all, he was feverish and had refused food almost all day. At the direction of the nurse, I had managed to get him to drink a little bit of water, which in hindsight I think reassured them that Thomas wasn’t in imminent danger of death from swallowing the rock.

We snuck down the hall, and got the x-ray, which was SUPER fun with a small child who has never kept still for more than half a second while awake in his entire life. And later, the doctor called us back and reviewed it with us. They couldn’t find anything in his belly that looked problematic, not even the rock I thought he had swallowed.

The doctors told me that they thought Thomas had contracted a virus, and that the timing of his illness was just bad luck, as it came right after the rock incident. I took him home, and the next day, he was fine, returned to his own self.

To this day, I continue to question whether or not he swallowed that rock. I talked to my spouse about it. I had felt the rock in his mouth, and I had been watching his poop very carefully for its reappearance. Sheepishly, he admitted that he had forgotten to look in the diapers for the rock. Thomas could have already pooped it out.

Ultimately, we’ll never know.

In most cases, ingestion of small objects is not cause for alarm, so long as your child doesn’t exhibit any of the warning signs. But sometimes, you should worry.

If your child swallows anything of the following:

  • Detergents, cleaners (like Tide Pods)
  • Something sharp
  • Magnets
  • Batteries

You need to get help right away. If your child has swallowed chemicals, call poison control (80-222-1222). If he has swallowed something sharp, magnets, or a battery, you need to get help for them.

Sharp items can tear up the tissues in the esophagus and stomach.

Batteries can get get stuck down there and cause chemical burns. Even when the battery is dead, there is still a small charge left, and it is the charge left in the battery that can actually burn a hole in the tissues. Small “button” batteries are very problematic, because they are more likely to find a little fold in the belly to get stuck in.

Magnets on their own may or may not be a problem. One magnet alone might not cause trouble, but multiple magnets may cause tissues to pinch, and may prevent the magnets from passing through as normal.

If your child swallowed something, but you don’t know what it was, call your pediatrician’s office advice line if there is one to get some advice about what to do and what to watch for.

When in doubt, check it out.

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