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My 1.5-year-old has recently started putting small stones (the size of hazelnuts) in her mouth when we are outdoors, which of course can be very dangerous.

I have tried everything I could think of to prevent any unfortunate accidents:

  • reacted quickly to take the stone out with a finger - it worked the first few times, but now she keeps her mouth tight and tries to escape (which in turn worries me because she could accidentally choke while she struggles)
  • in a serious tone told her to spit the stone
  • in normal voice tone told her that mommy doesn't want her to put stones in her mouth
  • asked her if she was hungry and offered her something to eat (the idea being: you put stuff in your mouth if you want to eat them)
  • tried to distract her / ignore her action

She sees it as a game and laughs and runs around with the stone in her mouth. This happens almost every time we are outdoors playing, which is every day. If I do manage to take the stone out, she would put in another one 30 seconds later.

My question is: how to best handle this situation? Both in terms of prevention (if possible), and once she has the stone in her mouth.

Note: she is generally not putting other things in her mouth that are not edible. Before this "stone game", she had a "let's taste the sand" phase, which was far less dangerous.

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Welcome to the club.

I think there's not much more you can do besides the things you're already doing. The good news is that the phase where kids stuff things in their mouths doesn't last forever; it will pass. It is also normal behavior. You'll just have to pay close attention while it lasts.

The most problematic thing seems to be the running around with the stone in her mouth—she could easily accidentally swallow it or, much worse, get it in her airways. If she just sucks on the stone while standing or sitting, that strikes me as somewhat less immediately dangerous, even though you do need to intervene.

As for prevention, I have a few suggestions you could try:

  • Reduce her exposure to objects of dangerous size (I imagine that's difficult, but maybe instead of going to a place with lots of little stones lying around, you could find a meadow, visit the forest, etc)

  • Provide her with something else to put in her mouth that she likes better

  • Start punishing her when she runs around with stones in her mouth, or rewarding her when she spits them out (depending on which kind of parenting style you prefer...). The rewards or punishments don't need to be big, but you have to reliably show her the consequences of her actions—maybe you can tell her that if she doesn't put a stone in her mouth on the way to the supermarket, she can pick out a fruit, help stash away the groceries, etc—just something she likes doing.

  • Try to stay calm when dealing with a stone-in-mouth situation. If you try to extract the stone yourself or immediately become agitated and order her to spit it out, she will pick up on it, and sometimes this becomes an interesting game to play, just like smaller toddlers enjoy throwing things to the floor to have adults pick them up again. Remember that while accidents involving small objects are possible and can have serious, even lethal outcomes (they make up a visible percentage of accidental deaths in infants and toddlers, see foreign-body-aspiration-guide), lethal outcomes on the whole, while too high for comfort, are not very frequent in absolute terms (see National Vital Statistics Report Volume 66 and 'Non-intentional asphyxiation deaths due to upper airway interference in children 0 to 14 years'), so if you react in the same way you react with all the other things she's not supposed to do, it might make it less interesting to defy you.

The last point also is a possible answer to your second question (what to do once a stone is in her mouth). Generally, I'd go with your "in a serious tone tell her to spit the stone" method. Be stern, so she knows she's doing something you're not ok with.

What I wouldn't do is try to physically remove the stone from her mouth. She's old enough to learn that she has to obey you without being physically forced. Also, I don't think offering her something to eat will work, because she's not interested in food: she's curious (and possibly playful—the funny game where mommy always gets upset and chases me...). When we're young, we don't just discover the world through vision, touch and smell. Haven't you sometimes wondered why you know what sand, dirt, stones, wood, leaves, etc taste like, and you know exactly how they'd feel in your mouth? It's because you explored that stuff with your mouth when you were a toddler...

  • I'd avoid the whole "punishment" side of things, as I think that's unlikely to work in this case (even if you believe in punishments being effective in general), but otherwise a great and thorough answer! – Joe Jun 20 '18 at 15:12
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    Great answer, Pascal, thank you. Your last point corresponds exactly to how I interpret the (arise of the) situation: the first couple of times I became agitated and tried to immediately extract the stone, which she thought was a fun game to play. I will try to be consistent with the serious but calm method from now on, hopefully it will give results. – iulia Jun 21 '18 at 7:00
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    By the way, both me and dad took a first aid course -- we will hopefully never have to use that knowledge, but life is full of unpredictable situations. – iulia Jun 21 '18 at 7:02
  • "...rewarding her when she spits them out..." I would highly recommend avoiding this suggestion because then she might associate the reward with the act of spitting out the stone, which could in turn encourage her to keep putting stones in her mouth. – John Doe Jun 28 '18 at 23:15
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Actually, you probably made a rookie mistake of overreacting the first time this happened. You should've calmly looked at the baby, approached slowly, then, without any excitement or emotion, removed the stone. Or even waited for the toddler to spit it out on her own. I've made the same mistake a few times with my 1st baby. With my 2nd I just wait and see what happens.

As to whay you should do now in my opinion:

  • no shouting, emotion, anger
  • make sad face and shake head firmly
  • approach, put open palm below chin, tell to spit
  • watch closely for signs of choking
  • do not struggle physically, as this may cause choking

Alternatively, you can try to ignore this behavior, but in this particular case I don't encourage it, as choking is a high probability.

  • I like this suggestion. She's looking for attention, for a reaction from you. If you ignore it or attempt to have her spit it out without yelling or being stern, but just projecting boredom (while inwardly watching her like a hawk to make sure she's not choking), I think you'll have better luck. – John Doe Jun 28 '18 at 23:17
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In the situation you describe, I go with punishment. now it doesn't need to be large or horrific.

Billy, spit that stone out, now. What, have we told you?

Don't put stones in my mouth or I could choke.

What did I say was going to happen if you did?

But I don't want to go home, I want to play on the slide.

Well, now we have to go home because you put a stone in your mouth, and I don't want to see you get hurt. Come on, let's get in the car.

Crying ensues. But later in the car... I'm sorry I put stones in my face.

I know, but I don't want to see you get hurt, and that's very dangerous. That's why we had to go home. We can't play at the park if you're going to do dangerous things like put stones in your mouth.

sniffles, I won't.

Ok, let's play some candy land when we get home ok?

This generally gets the point across and has a negative side effect enough that stops them from continuing. But again it's not a super reaction, or freak out. It's just a natural consequence to their action. Put stones in your mouth, and you can't be around stones. It's simple to understand and easy enough to explain.

*Toddle speak translated to adult.

  • You should not expect sentences from a 1.5 year old, but they can communicate the ideas well enough. – coteyr Jun 27 '18 at 9:15
  • I hope I'm not underestimating my daughter, but this seems a bit complex for the cognitive capacities of a 1.5 year old. I have tried to immediately remove her from the situation, but she would still have the stone in the mouth when I say "Ok, we go home now because..." (after I tell her to spit it, which she won't), and laugh and run around thus transforming it into a game. Going home didn't seem like a punishment, but like a natural state of affairs, after all we do go home every day at some point... – iulia Jun 27 '18 at 15:36
  • Every child is different but at 1.5 the kids I deal with certainly understand the difference between going home after they are done playing and going home right now because daddy is upset. It's true that you're not going to get full sentences, but you should get some communication. And kids understand far more then we realize. You might have to go "Remember I told you, if you put....." But they certainly get it. And it's not supposed to be a huge punishment. But stone goes in the mouth, playtime is over. Is a cause and effect that a 1.5-year-old should be able to get, so long as it's immediate – coteyr Jun 27 '18 at 16:28

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