Anyone holding a newborn for the first time knows how carefully you should support their head and neck and cradle their little bodies. But as kids get older, parents and relatives may get too comfortable picking up the kiddos and don’t think about how to properly pick up a toddler. Unfortunately, lifting them incorrectly can cause painful injuries for them and for you.
Dr. Brian Smith, M.D., FAAP, chief of orthopedics at Texas Children’s Hospital, tells Romper in an interview that the safest way to pick up any child is by lifting with your hands under their armpits. “I think the safest way to pick up children is to grasp them under the arms so your thumbs are on their chest and lift them up that way. Once kids get head control around 3 to 4 months of age, then you can pick them up under the arms. If the child is getting heavier, you may want to do a scoop lift where you have one hand under their chest one hand under their thighs or buttocks,” he explains.
For little ones with different abilities or needs, talk to your pediatrician about the safest method of picking them up (for your body and theirs). “You may need to pick up children with disabilities, low muscle tone, or low head control in other ways. If they’re disabled, they may be in a wheelchair or in a bed, so again, you’re doing sort of a scoop lift with one arm under the shoulders and supporting the head,” says Smith. “I remind parents that as kids get older and heavier, if you have a fatigued mom and a 5- or 6-year-old, I don’t want parents to hurt their backs. Lift with your legs and not your lower back.”
When it comes to unsafe ways to pick up a child, there are plenty. Dr. Margaret Siobhan Murphy-Zane, M.D., pediatric orthopedist at Children’s Hospital Colorado, tells Romper in an interview that she has seen parents carry their kids by one leg and even by the head. But the most common unsafe way to pick up your child is lifting them by their arms or hands. It can result in nursemaid’s elbow, where a tendon slips into the elbow joint while it’s hyperextended and gets stuck. It’s painful for the toddler, and parents usually notice it in their kiddo when they won’t use the injured arm.
“Children should not be lifted up but pulling up on their hands with the elbow in an extended position. Injuries can occur at the shoulder, elbow, and wrist, including fractures. A common way this happens is where the parent is walking holding the kid’s hand, the kid drops to the ground. The parent’s reaction is to drag the child back up by the hand they are holding, though a better response would be to bend down with the child. Nursemaid’s elbows also occur with swinging the child around in a circle by their arms or by an arm and a leg.”
Smith adds that spinning, dangling, and flipping little ones around to get a giggle is common. While it usually doesn’t result in an accident, he has seen these shenanigans go wrong, and cautions parents to be careful.
“Sadly, I’ve seen some kids who were dropped from these positions and had spine injury. And many parents will swing their kids around by the hands and arms. I probably have done it with my own kids, and kids love to be twirled around, but you have to be really careful not to injure them or lose grip.”
Dr. Margaret Siobhan Murphy-Zane, M.D., pediatric orthopedist at Children’s Hospital Colorado