It can be near-impossible even for a mom to figure out which cries and coos mean what. Is your baby bawling because she’s hungry? Weeping over a wet diaper? Wailing because she’s exhausted... or maybe over-tired? The mystery persists, but one cry moms feel confident that they can recognize in an instant is a baby's cry of pain. You’d know if your baby was dealing with discomfort due to constipation, so you’d definitely know if something more serious was causing her pain, say, a broken bone, right? Not necessarily. Romper spoke infant pediatric experts, who explained why detecting a broken bone in a baby is a lot harder than we’d think.
Everyone we talked to about it said babies are resilient — they’re like little footballs.
Ellen C. lived a mother's worst nightmare when she found out her 5-month-old baby had been dealing with a broken femur for days without her knowing about it. She recently took to Reddit to share her story ("TL;DR: My baby's thigh was broken, and because of her cheerful demeanor we had no idea and didn't get any treatment for 5 days"), because she knew she couldn’t be the only parent out there who’d gone without realizing their child had broken a bone.
It all started with a harmless accident. She was walking down the steps with her infant and the two fell, but her baby never touched the ground. Immediately, there was the panic that comes along with any mishap as a mother, but she checked her baby all over and didn’t see any injuries. Her daughter wasn’t even crying, let alone displaying any tell-tales like blood, deformity, or swelling — just that tiny little black and blue patch that had developed over the course of that day.
“She was fussier than normal, so I was kind of second-guessing myself wondering if she was more hurt,” Ellen tells Romper. “Of course, everyone we talked to about it said babies are resilient — they’re like little footballs — and tried their best to console us.”
Ellen considered bringing her baby to the doctor but, since everything seemed perfectly fine, decided to watch over it for a few days to avoid being that overly cautious mom everyone rolls their eyes at in the pediatrician’s waiting room.
A couple of days later, when she and her husband were changing their daughter, they noticed she wasn’t extending her legs to stand up like she usually does, and this is what clued them into the idea that something could be wrong.
“We made the appointment the next day and the pediatrician was wonderful — did the full examination and was just kind of confused about it because she wasn’t showing any pain over it,” says Ellen. Luckily ,their pediatrician was cautious, so she had the x-rays done the next day.
Hours later, they received a call that they had to take their baby to the E.R. immediately — she was suffering from a broken femur.
I just felt like the worst mother that I could let her go through that.
“I could barely finish the phone call — I started freaking out over whether or not this could mess up her growth plate and cause her legs to be this size the rest of her life, or whether this was going to harm her motor development and cause her to hit milestones way later,” Ellen explains. “I was worried that she had been suffering this whole time too and somehow not showing it, because when you think of a broken bone, that shit hurts! It’s not going to be OK for days, so I just felt like the worst mother that I could let her go through that.”
Once they arrived at the E.R., the staff did x-rays of her daughter's entire body to make sure there were not other fractures or internal injuries. “There were a whole line of different doctors coming in during their shift changes, so we kept having to explain the story again, watch them conduct their own physical examinations on her and then waiting for the x-rays,” she says. “The nurse came in and took her vitals again and then we waited a couple hours for the orthopedic doctor to come in and put the cast on her leg.”
After that, the doctors took blood to test for any imbalance that may have caused her bones to break more easily. Thankfully, everything came back normal — Ellen's daughter is healthy and just has to wear a cast for a few weeks.
[Children] can sustain small cracks with minor trauma, like a simple trip and fall.
Thankfully, breaks during the first years of life tend to heal themselves fantastically, since infant's bones are less dense than those of an adult, especially the outer part, explains John Polousky, M.D., surgical director and chief of pediatric orthopedics at the Children’s Health Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine, in Dallas, Texas. As a result, they can sustain small cracks with minor trauma, like a simple trip and fall.
“In contrast, adult bones tend to require a higher level of force to break, like a fall from height or car accident," says Polousky, "and, when they do break, they shatter making the diagnosis very obvious.”
Breaks in children, on the other hand, can be near-impossible to detect without a clinical examination. “We examine the child for any signs of bone or joint swelling, bruising or discoloration, refusal to bear weight or walk on a leg or holding their arm to their side, pain that is not relieved with rest, ice and elevation and bending of a normally straight bone,” explains Christopher Redman, MD, pediatric orthopedic surgeon at the Children’s Health Andrews Institute for Orthopedics & Sports Medicine.
“When examining a child, we look at all of these factors along with the specific location of the pain.” The combination of these, along with radiographs, can lead to a proper diagnosis and treatment plan.
While it’s one of the scariest things to miss a serious injury in your child, it can happen to even the most on-point parents. The best thing to do if you’re not sure whether or not something is wrong is to make an appointment with your pediatrician or, at the very least, call them and fill them in on what’s going on. From there, your pediatrician can advise you on whether or not an in-person appointment is necessary.
And don't worry, Ellen C.'s story ended happily. "Our little champion gave me the biggest smile in the backseat" on the way home, she explained on Reddit, like "'Chill out, one with the milk! I'm obviously fine!'"
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