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The truth about water beads

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When it comes to safety, I strongly believe that parents should be educated on risk, best practices, and consider the “what if” scenarios to make the best choices for their families.

Water Beads are a very popular sensory toy. They are common in a lot of schools and occupational therapy clinics and for sensory play. I want to preface this by saying: they can be played with, but parents and caregivers need to know the VERY real risk.

Why are water beads harmful?

Water beads are small beads that when placed in water, they can grow up to 200 times their size. A cool-looking science experiment, however, this can be harmful to small children. They can be swallowed, placed up noses, or placed in ears. Water beads are small, some are opaque (clear-ish in color), and they look like candy.

We KNOW kids can do this, so these water beads can be of concern if we are not 100% supervising a child. And as we all know, 100% supervision is very hard for children especially if we have multiple children to supervise.

If ingested (and they look like candy so the risk is high especially for younger kids), they can continue to grow inside the bowel and expand to a size that causes intestinal or bowel obstruction as discussed in this video. It is deeply tragic. Many can also be chemically toxic if swallowed based on their components.

If placed in the ears or nose, sometimes a kid will not tell their parent and they will begin having copious and smelly nasal discharge or ear pain prompting a visit to the doctor. If the beads are in the ear long enough, they may cause damage to the eardrum and need surgical removal.

Signs of ingested water beads:

Many of these signs are nonspecific to water bead ingestion, but if your child was playing around them, it’s important to look out for these signs (frankly, any of these signs in a child who’s not well-appearing would prompt any parent to get their child seen):

  • Refusing to eat
  • Drooling
  • Vomiting
  • Wheezing
  • Complaints that something is stuck in the chest or throat
  • Abdominal pain
  • Constipation
  • Abdominal swelling

What should parents do about water beads?

Revisit close supervision. Close supervision doesn’t mean kinda, maybe, sometimes. It means CLOSE SUPERVISION. It means you are making sure that there is no stray water bead anywhere. This means, your child doesn’t stash some when you turn your back and go into another room to eat it.

We have allowed Ryaan to play with water beads. But, the container is tucked away and he only gets access when an adult is actively playing with him. When playtime is done, we put everything away. The adult (usually me), checks the ground for water beads because we also have a dog and these are very harmful for dogs if ingested.

It’s okay to use but understand the risk and be cautious with use. He is never given access without an adult who is physically playing with him. If we have more than one child or a friend comes over for a play date, water beads would not be an option due to the reality that 100% supervision is harder. I recognize this and encourage you to, too when thinking of risky items.

As a parent, weigh the risk and benefit. If you cannot truly supervise, this is okay! We are human. But then this means water beads should not be played with. There are HUNDREDS of other play options. And the benefit may not outweigh the risk in this situation.

Think about safety

There are MANY MANY MANY safety risks in this world. I think it’s very important to know the risks of products on the market, the activities we do with our children, and the decisions we make for our families and listen to best practices. It’s ultimately your decision to decide how you proceed. It’s your job to look at benefit and risk.

I ask that you don’t ever tell yourself “Well my kid survived, so we’re fine.” Or, “That won’t ever happen to me. I’m always monitoring my kid.” The unthinkable happens when we don’t expect it, so it is important to listen and understand risk.

The goal of safety education should be to present risk, provide best practices, explain why a safety tip is recommended, and not shame those doing otherwise. Shame means saying, “You are ridiculous.” “You are a terrible negligent parent.”  

I love Safe Beginnings because Holly does present every up-to-date piece of information with risk and no shaming.

P.S. More to come in 2023 about safety and safety shaming! Sign up for my newsletter to stay up to date!

Dr. Mona Admin

Hi there!

I’m a Board Certified Pediatrician, IBCLC, and a mom of two.

I know the ups and downs of becoming a mom and raising kids.

I help moms ditch the worry and second-guessing so you can find more joy in motherhood.


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All information presented on this blog, my Instagram, and my podcast is for educational purposes and should not be taken as personal medical advice. These platforms are to educate and should not replace the medical judgment of a licensed healthcare provider who is evaluating a patient.

It is the responsibility of the guardian to seek appropriate medical attention when they are concerned about their child.

All opinions are my own and do not reflect the opinions of my employer or hospitals I may be affiliated with.