When we think of burn injury in young children, we must think about the kitchen.
I don’t mean to scare anyone. However, I do hope to add another level of awareness to our time with young kids. In this post, I’ll cover how a few small safety measures can prevent some of the more common ways children suffer from burns in the kitchen. Then, I’ll share some exciting updates about a new safety feature in microwave ovens. There’s a big change coming in 2023 that will go a long way in preventing microwave-related burns.
Scalding Burns in Children
When I was a resident physician, I spent some of my training in a busy pediatric burn unit. Aside from learning about the intensive medical care needed for these patients, I learned a lot about how these burns happened in the first place. Accidents can happen anywhere, but I was surprised how many involved hot soup. Medical literature reflects this as well. I walked away from my time there with a newfound respect and fear for hot liquids in general and ramen noodle soups specifically. (It’s one of the most common foods to cause severe scald burns).
One paper found that over half of burn hospitalizations in children under age 5 were from scald injuries. There are different types of burns, but a “scald” is a burn from liquid or steam. So, these kids were not getting burnt from accidentally touching a hot stove (that also happens), but rather from hot spills: food or drink spilling on them. Many times, this happened when a young child reached for something on a countertop or table. It can also happen when they try to pull hot items out of a microwave.
With this in mind, a study evaluated how younger children behave around microwave ovens. They found that kids as young as 17 months could open the door of the microwave, start the microwave oven, and attempt to remove contents from inside. Considering how hot things can get in microwaves, this poses a huge risk. Unfortunately, the risk has become a reality for many children.
Severe scalds can lead to a emergency room visits and multi-day hospitalizations. It also results in physical pain, procedures, and follow up medical visits to treat these injuries.
Families can make a few changes to help prevent burns in children.
There are a few things families can do to help protect young children.
- Keep hot foods and hot drinks out of reach of children. Place all hot liquids out of reach. This includes keeping cups of coffee or tea (or any other hot beverage) away from counter edges.
- Keep the microwave oven itself out of reach. (And, remember that children can climb beyond what any of us would call a safe height).
- Do not leave children unattended if a microwave is running.
- Use the back of the stove. Even when using the back burners, turn pot handles away from the reach of small children.
- Do not heat baby bottles in the microwave. They can contain “hot spots,” as it will heat unevenly. Some parts of the liquid can be hotter than others. Heating a bottle by resting it in a cup of warm water is one good idea that works well.
Many of these seem obvious, but I’ve learned myself that it takes a conscious effort to keep hot liquids away from toddlers.
A proposed change in microwave oven doors can prevent burns.
Despite parents’ best efforts, accidents still happen. Dr. Kyran Quinlan, M.D., M.P.H., FAAP, has led efforts to make microwave oven doors more child-resistant. It is simply a “passive” way to help protect children. By 2023, new microwave ovens in the United States will require 2 distinct actions in order to open the door. Dr. Quinlan made the analogy of pill bottles with a push and turn movement to open. The new regulations take into account adults who may need to open a microwave the traditional way. (The 2-action safeguard may be disengaged in some cases).
In a Pediatrics article and in the May 2021 issue of AAP News, he described the process of changing the national standard taking 15 years. One challenge was that microwave oven manufacturers were unaware of a problem. They reported that no one had communicated with them about the serious injuries from scalds. And, this makes some sense as there was no defect in the microwaves themselves. Families of children with burn injuries may have not felt a need to share what happened.
To be clear, I don’t think anyone is blaming microwave manufacturers at all. However, just like pill bottle design helps prevent accidental ingestions, these child-resistant microwave doors can help prevent accidental burns.
As a community, we can think about other childhood risks.
This is a lesson in perseverance and child advocacy. Because physicians took what they saw in practice (and medical literature), children will be safer. This change in microwave oven doors will save many children from devastating burns.
We parents can be part of the process for continued improvements in child safety. If we use a product or see a situation that could be made safer, it’s worth it to say something. The journey to change microwave door regulations was a long one. We can’t know if it would have been different (shorter) if the manufacturers had been aware of safety concerns earlier on. The process was much more complicated than merely raising awareness.
My personal reaction, though, is that there may be great power in individual voices sharing their experiences. Wondering where to report concerns? The Consumer Product Safety Commission is one place to start. Saferproducts.gov has an easy online form to fill out to make a report.
Scalding burns in children can be devastating, but they’re also preventable. Parents can make a few adjustments in the kitchen to keep hot liquids away from young children. And, by 2023 new microwaves will help as well. The new microwave doors will be more child resistant, making it less likely for a toddler to open.
Maya M. Mahmood D.O., FAAP is a board-certified pediatrician and mom. Sign up for her children’s health newsletter below.