With their bright colours and squishy feel, water beads are especially appealing to young children. When dry, water beads are tiny and can easily be swallowed without detection.

As they bathe in stomach fluids, they expand to many times their original size, posing a serious risk of blockage in a child’s bowel.

The size of golf balls

Some water beads grow to more than 15 times their original size, up to the size of golf balls.

The Irish Competition and Consumer Protection Commission shows just how large they can grow:

Bowel blockage

Mr Hemanshoo Thakkar, Consultant Paediatric Surgeon, explains why water beads are so dangerous for small children:

“It’s very difficult for water beads to move through a child’s bowels by themselves once they have expanded. So if a child swallows some and they get stuck, they will need an operation.

“The beads don’t show up on X-ray, so finding them can be really complicated. Depending on where they end up, a child may need major surgery.

“Even when you’ve removed the obvious ones, you can’t be certain you have them all. We had a case where a baby had to undergo major surgery twice to remove all the balls.

“Please keep water beads away from young children. They’re just not worth the risk.”

No safety warnings

Water beads are readily available to buy online. They may be sold as sensory toys or used in pellet or water guns. Most come with no warnings about the danger of children swallowing them.

This Instagram post from Dr Niamh Lynch shows just how easy it is to order water beads without realizing the dangers.

Five top tips for water bead safety

  1. Keep water beads away from babies and young children
  2. If older children are using water beads, use a large tub with plenty of free space so stray beads can’t escape onto the floor
  3. Supervise older children when using water beads
  4. After use, check that all beads are safely cleared away
  5. Store dry water beads in a closed container out of children’s reach

Some older children with special educational needs also put things in their mouths. Take real care if using water beads as sensory toys.

In an emergency

If you suspect a child has swallowed a water bead, seek medical help immediately. Symptoms can include vomiting, lethargy, a swollen belly and problems opening the bowels.

Early years settings

Many settings may have been using water beads for sensory play, unaware of the dangers they pose to small children.

With growing awareness, it’s important to take action to mitigate the risks as much as possible. Katrina Phillips OBE, Chief Executive of the Child Accident Prevention Trust advises:

“Carefully weigh up the risks and benefits. If you’re still planning to use them in your setting, mitigate some of the risks by expanding the beads in a staff-only area, only bringing fully-expanded beads into the main nursery and keeping a close eye on children while they’re playing with them. And store them in a safe place away from children.

If you suspect a child in your care has inhaled or swallowed a waterbead, or has one stuck in their nose or ear, seek medical help immediately.”

Free resource

Download, print and display our water beads poster to spread the message that water beads are dangerous and should be kept away from young children.

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