Defining a Pediatric Emergency

Armen Hareyan's picture

Sometimes a medical emergency is obvious. Your child has fallen while tree climbing, hit a sharp object and has a bleeding, four-inch cut on her forehead, for example. But frequently, the seriousness of a child's illness or injury can be more difficult to decipher, especially for a new parent.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics' (APA) Committee on Pediatric Emergency Medicine, "The lack of universal understanding and application of a definition of 'emergency' is one of the significant problems restricting access to pediatric emergency medical care". There are, however, general guidelines for assessing and defining a medical emergency. According to the National Network for Child Care, "If you answer yes to any of the following questions, you should seek medical help immediately".

  • Is the child unconscious?
  • Are you unable to arouse a typical response from an infant?
  • Is there a major physical injury or many injuries?
  • Is there heavy bleeding that will not stop even when you apply pressure?
  • Does a child suddenly seem very drowsy or appear to be in a stupor? Is s/he unable to answer simple questions?
  • Has an alert child become disoriented or confused? Is s/he unable to tell you where she is or her name?
  • Is the child short of breath while he is resting? Is he wheezing and short of breath?
  • Does the child have "cold sweats" along with chest pain, abdominal pain, or light-headedness?
  • Is the child in severe pain?

While these markers can serve as general guidelines, it is most important for you to feel safe, rather than sorry. In other words, if you consider your child's injury and/or behavior in response to an illness is out of the ordinary, you should act on that feeling. After all, you know your child better than anyone.

Be Prepared for Emergencies

Think ahead and plan for what you will do in an emergency. Keep bandages to stop bleeding and basic first aid kit well stocked and easily available. Keep important phone numbers posted by your telephone including your local poison center number, the local ambulance company and emergency department numbers. Talk with all the people who care for your child about what to do and where to find supplies in case of an emergency. This includes relatives and friends, baby sitters, older siblings and child care providers - anyone and everyone who might be responsible for your children when you are not available.

Let all of your childcare providers know how you want them to handle an emergency that involves your child. Make sure you provide them with the name and phone number of your child's doctor. Find out if 911 services are available in your area. Teach your older children how and who to call for emergency help.


It is also important to teach your children basic safety rules and constantly reinforce them. Make sure they know the importance of always buckling up when getting in a car and wearing a helmet when riding a bicycle, using roller blades or a scooter. Preventing a trip to the Emergency Room is the most important first step in keeping you child safe.

Learning CPR and the Heimlich maneuver can save lives. The American Red Cross, your county health department, local vocational-technical school, or hospital may offer these classes. It's advisable for all adults to be trained in these life-saving procedures.

Emergencies require prompt, appropriate action. Don't panic. Plan and prepare now so you can respond appropriately and quickly if an emergency occurs.

Newton-Wellesley Hospital is one of only 10% of the nation's hospitals to maintain an emergency department specifically for children. The Vinik Pediatric Emergency Department at Newton-Wellesley Hospital is open daily from 12 noon to 12 midnight -- peak hours for children's medical emergencies.


This material is intended to provide general educational information and to help users arrange more easily for health care services. This site is not an attempt to practice medicine or provide specific medical advice and should not be used to make a diagnosis or to replace or overrule a qualified health care provider's judgment. Nor should users rely upon this information if they need emergency medical treatment. We strongly encourage users to consult with a qualified health care professional for answers to personal questions.

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