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Updated: 10 Feb 2022

Baby dies after swallowing button battery

We advise parents and carers to be vigilant about the serious risks of batteries around babies and young children
Button batteries dangers

Which? is warning parents to take care that all products that use button batteries are properly secured or kept out of reach of children.

It follows the tragic death of one-year-old Hughie McMahon from Motherwell, who passed away after swallowing a button battery from a toy teddy.

Read on to find out why button batteries are so dangerous and how you can help keep your children safe from them.

The danger caused by button batteries

Button batteries, also known as lithium coin cell batteries, come in a range of sizes but most are small enough to be swallowed.

Once a battery encounters a wet surface, it starts discharging a current, which can create caustic soda. This is a chemical that's normally put down a blocked drain to clear it and it causes serious chemical burns to internal organs.

The video below demonstrates what might happen to soft tissue if a battery is swallowed:

In the case of Hughie McMahon, who swallowed an LR44 alkaline battery from a Vtech Swing & Sing toy monkey, doctors at Glasgow's Queen Elizabeth University Hospital discovered his blood had become acidic, and a hole had burned into his heart.

It's not clear how Hughie accessed the battery as the toy has a battery compartment that requires a screwdriver to open.

A spokesperson for VTech said:

'We are currently working with the relevant authorities to investigate this matter. Customer safety is of the utmost importance and we take these matters very seriously.'

The issue of button batteries has become so serious that the Office for Product Safety and Standards (OPSS) launched a safety campaign to raise awareness of the dangers, and also worked with the UK national standards organisation (BSI) to create a new standard for button battery safety.

The button battery standard is free and contains really useful advice both for companies and parents, or you can find out more information about the button battery standard on the BSI blog.

What you should do if your child swallows a battery

If you think your child has swallowed a button battery, take them straight to A&E. Saliva and fluids in the body will start reacting with a button battery immediately, so time is of the essence.

Tell the doctor, show any battery packaging if you have it, don't try to make your child sick and don't let them eat or drink.

If your child has swallowed a battery without you seeing, there might not be any obvious symptoms, so even if you're not completely sure, it's safest to just go straight to A&E.

You child may have:

  • Vomiting fresh, bright red blood
  • Developing a cough, gag or drooling a lot
  • Appearing to have a stomach upset or being sick
  • Throat, chest or stomach pain
  • Tiredness and lethargy
  • Loss or reduced appetite
  • Being quieter or not themselves.

However, these can also be symptoms for a range of things, so it's always safest to trust your instincts, don't wait for symptoms and seek medical help immediately.

What do the experts say?

Ashley Martin, Public Health Adviser for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), said:

'RoSPA are saddened to hear of yet another tragic incident involving a button battery and offers the family our condolences. As more and more electronic items are introduced into the family home, the potential for children to swallow button batteries increases, with sometimes devastating effects.

'RoSPA urges parents and carers to check all items that might contain button batteries and make sure compartments are secure and that they are out of reach of young children. Spare and discarded batteries also need to be kept out of reach and out of sight.

'If your child swallows a battery, please seek medical advice immediately.RoSPA is currently working with the Office for Product Safety and Standards (OPSS) and other partners to raise awareness of the dangers of button batteries and improve product safety.'

How to protect your child

The best thing you can do to keep your baby or child safe from the dangers of button batteries is to check all toys have lockable battery compartments.

They should require either a screwdriver or other tool to open them, or have two individual movements that need to be operated at the same time in order to open the compartment.

Look out for other items besides toys that might use button batteries, including key fobs, flameless candles, musical greetings cards, digital scales and remote controls, and keep them away from children.

Keep stored batteries away from small hands, preferably in a high up or locked cupboard. Dispose of used batteries safely, as they can still cause injury, even if they're flat.

Check the quality of toys or other items that use batteries - if they feel rickety or cheap, there's a chance they could open or break easily, giving access to the battery - as demonstrated in our toys investigation from August 2021.

Don't Buy toys investigation

Our investigation into unsafe toys

Last year we carried out an investigation into toys sold through online marketplaces such as Amazon, eBay, Wish and AliExpress.

We discovered a wide range of toys that could pose a danger to young children with risks including strangulation and choking hazards, and easily accessible magnets and button batteries.

All toy listings were removed from the site, but it's a good idea to be careful when buying toys and check that they don't have any elements that could pose a risk.