The day after you host a holiday party at your place, your toddler is stumbling around the living room, slurring her speech, falling, and dozing off in the corner. Nothing to be alarmed about, right? Toddlers often act like pint-sized drunks.
Turns out, you might want to worry. The abundance of holiday get-togethers means glasses and bottles with alcohol in them are in reach of tiny hands. And, naturally curious toddlers sometimes pick them up and drink when mom and dad aren’t looking.
“This is much more common than we realized and probably much more common because parents don’t always pick up on it,” said Dr. Erica Michiels, associate medical director for the pediatric emergency department at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
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While a few sips of booze might not sound like a big deal, toddlers process alcohol much differently than even school-age children.
“It does not take a lot of alcohol,” Michiels said. “Toddler bodies are not mature enough to process alcohol.”
A child with blood alcohol levels of 0.05, which is lower than the legal drinking limit in most states, have had problems, she said. That's because their livers can’t properly process alcohol, causing their blood sugar to dip, sometimes to dangerous levels.
“They can experience seizures, comas, and even death — if the blood sugar drops too low,” wrote Dr. Richard So, pediatrician at Cleveland Clinic Children’s, via email.
Identifying warning signs remains a challenge; parents can’t rely on signs associated with adult drunkenness.
“Toddlers already struggle with control over their bodies. They are already off-balance,” Michiels said.
But if parents notice any of the following, it might be cause to worry:
- Alcohol on their breath — A whiff of alcohol can indicate that your toddler drank.
- Extraordinary sleepiness — A child who refuses to wake or falls asleep while playing might be intoxicated.
- Exaggerated behaviors — If your toddler normally walks but suddenly decides to crawl or can’t speak clearly when he did before, he might have drank alcohol.
“Parents will know this isn’t typically how their toddler will act. The speech is more slurred than usual, the balance is off, he can usually stand, but now he cannot,” said Dr. Marcel Casavant, chief of toxicology at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and medical director of the Central Ohio Poison Center.
Parents who suspect that their children have consumed alcohol should call poison control.
“Call the specialist and describe what it happening to the child right now and get the best advice,” Casavant said.
While some children might be sober enough to remain home, others will need to go to the hospital to receive IV fluids with sugar to raise their blood sugar levels, preventing seizures.
Michiels said that parents often feel embarrassed after their child drank and hesitate to share that information. The experts urge parents to divulge everything they know so their children receive the proper treatment without undergoing unnecessary tests.
“They should definitely put the safety of their child above their own embarrassment,” said Casavant.