The faithful yellow rubber ducky, memorialized in song by Ernie of Sesame Street fame and a staple in nearly every baby’s bathtub, is housing a dirty little secret. A very dirty one.
You may have already discovered it on your own. You’re giving Junior his daily bath and submerge one of his ducks under sudsy bath water. Air bubbles rush to the surface, as water flows into the duck via a little hole underneath. You pick up the duck, squeeze it, and out spews a stream of brown gunk.
The stuff, which looks like it should be coming from a petri dish instead of a toy your child sucks on, is probably mold. Bath toys are a perfect breeding ground for it. “You have an enclosed space where a few organisms can get in and they don’t get out,” explains Dr. Lyuba Konopasek, an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weil Cornell Medical Center and mother of two. “It’s almost like standing water.”
Should You Be Worried?
If you find unidentified dark matter coating your child’s mini sailboat, there’s probably no need to send out an SOS just yet. While moist conditions make a suitable host environment for mold and bacteria (including those that cause staph infections and intestinal and respiratory illnesses), the slimy secretions probably look worse than they really are.
Dr. Paul Williams of Northwest Asthma and Allergy Center and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Section on Allergy and Immunology says, “[Parents] don’t need to be worried in the sense that their child’s health may be harmed by ordinary quantities of mold in the environment. There are thousands of mold spores in the air that we breathe every day. So, in a lot of ways, molds are just a part of our everyday environment and our system handles it quite nicely.”
But what if your child squirts moldy bath water into his mouth from a toy and then swallows it? I know my daughter has slurped down plenty of water despite my repeated warnings to cease and desist. “The likelihood of a child getting sick from this is close to zero,” notes Dr. Konopasek. She compares ingesting mold from a bath toy to accidentally giving your child a piece of moldy bread to eat. It’s just going to come out when the child goes to the bathroom. Dr. Konopasek adds that the only kids who could potentially be at risk are those who have immune problems, or those younger than three months old.
Bathing the Bath Toys
That said, most parents would prefer that their children avoid playing with toys that look as if they’ve been soaking in a cesspool. Dr. Konopasek offers the following tips for cleaning your child’s bath time buddies:
- “Try washing plastic toys in a mild dish soap with warm water,” suggests Dr. Konopasek. “If it’s good enough for my dishes, then it’s fine for my kids’ toys because they’re all going to go in their mouths.” Dr. Konopasek is hesitant to advise parents to stick bath toys in the dishwasher. In addition to running the risk of the toys melting, she says, “I’m not a fan of getting hot fluid in there and then possibly squirting out and burning your kid.”
- What if you have a toy like a rubber duck with a hole and there’s mold growing inside? “You need to throw it out. Once that mold is there, it’s time to get a new duck,” says Dr. Konopasek. Next time, you might want to stay away from toys with holes.
- Wash items such as washcloths and terry cloth hand puppets along with your regular laundry at least once a week.
- Store bath toys where they can drain, such as inside a mesh bag. Avoid keeping toys in buckets or other receptacles where water can collect. Always drain toys between baths.
Playing It Safe
While moldy ducks may not pose a serious threat to your child’s health, there are plenty of other safety concerns when it comes to kids and their bath time entertainment. It may seem obvious but it can’t be said enough: “Anytime you have a child who is in the bath, then you have to supervise,” says Dr. Konopasek.
“Drowning is the leading cause of unintentional injury-related deaths for kids one-to-four-years old,” cites Angela Mickalide, Ph.D., Program Director of the National SAFE KIDS Campaign. “About 10 percent of all childhood drownings happen in the bathtub, and the majority happen in the absence of adult supervision.” It takes only a short amount of time. I remember my CPR instructor horrifying our class with tragic tales of parents who ran out of the bathroom to answer the phone or get an extra towel while leaving their children unattended in the bath, only to return to terrifying situations.
Choking can be another concern. “The same choking rules you think of for outside the bathtub, you should really think of inside the bathtub,” says Dr. Konpasek. “The thing that would worry me the most is having bath toys that are the wrong size. So, a great rule for me is: If the item can fit through the inside of a toilet paper roll, it’s too small” for your child to play with.
Some parents give their children everyday household items such as plastic bowls and cups to use in the bath. While these can be fun for little ones, cups and bowls from the kitchen don’t have drainage holes like toys made specifically for the bath and, thus, can pose a drowning risk. Dr. Konopasek recommends, “Don’t let kids play with things that haven’t been child and safety-tested as toys.”
Stray toys left inside the tub can become what the safety industry refers to as an “attractive nuisance.” A toddler standing outside the tub may spot an inviting toy inside and try to grab it. That could mean trouble. “Children under a year-and-a-half are particularly top heavy,” says Mickalide. So when they reach down into the tub for a toy, they could very easily lose their balance and tumble in.
As is the case with most areas of parenting, there aren’t rules covering every conceivable situation. “There is no science about this,” concludes Dr. Konopasek. “Parents generally have good common sense and make good decisions for their kids. Go with your instincts,” she says. Unfortunately, “going with your instincts” may entail sending your child’s favorite yellow pal for a one-way trip to the local landfill.