Mum's Christmas warning after toddler dies from common item

With kids inundated with presents this Christmas, parents are urged to be aware of which toys can quickly turn deadly.

State governments across Australia have once again warned of the dangers of button batteries – the tiny power source behind many children's toys. Roughly 20 children swallow button batteries every Christmas in Australia, a mistake that can sadly kill.

Devastated Melbourne mum Allison Rees's 14-month-old daughter, Isabella, died after she ingested a lithium button battery in 2015. Following the toddler’s death, Ms Rees has worked tirelessly to educate people about the dangers of the battery, and pushed for tougher rules around the sale of the item and products that contain them.

Isabella Rees is pictured left. She died after swallowing a button battery, pictured on the right is a stock image of one.
Isabella Rees (left) was 14 months old when she died after ingesting a button battery (right). Source: Supplied/Getty Images

They can be found in children’s toys, watches, remote controls, car keys, scales, thermometers and musical greeting cards just to name a few.

The small, round silver batteries are just the right size to become lodged in the throat of a baby or toddler, and the consequences can be deadly.

“When ingested, they can be fatal. The battery can literally burn a hole in parts of the digestive system like the oesophagus, causing internal bleeding,” Queensland Health’s Patient Safety and Quality Improvement Service executive director Kirstine Sketcher-Baker said.

“Even an old or flat battery can generate enough electricity to cause serious burns.”

14-month-old girl dies in button-battery tragedy

Tragically Ms Rees is too familiar with the dangers of button batteries.

In 2015, little Isabella was playing at a park when her parents realised something was seriously wrong with the toddler.

She had been vomiting and had a fever, her parents told hospital staff.

Allison Rees with her daughter Bella
Allison Rees with her daughter Isabella who died after ingesting button batteries. Source: Supplied

They thought Bella may have swallowed something, but it wasn’t investigated by doctors and the family were sent home with a suspected virus.

Over the next few days Ms Rees said her daughter was “exhausted”, she wasn’t eating, her fever remained and her stool was black.

The concerned parents returned to the hospital two more times and were sent home with antibiotics.

Nineteen days after the first hospital visit Ms Rees woke to find Isabella in her cot soaked in her own blood.

The distressed mother rushed her daughter back to the emergency room.

“They thought it was a nose bleed so I had to convince them she had been vomiting blood,” Ms Rees previously told Yahoo News Australia.

“They did an X-ray and found what they thought was a coin but it turned out to be a battery.”

Three hours after arriving at the hospital Isabella suffered a series of cardiac arrests and died.

A coroner found the suspected coin was actually a button battery. It’s still not known how the toddler managed to swallow the battery or how long it had been inside her.

“The feeling was awful, my poor little girl with chemical burns on the inside, she must have been in so much pain,” a tearful Ms Rees said.

A person holds a pile of Energizer LR44/A76 Alkaline 1.5v batteries in their hand.
Families are being urged to be aware of the danger of button batteries. Source: Andrew Matthews

What happens when you swallow a button battery

Queensland Health released a powerful new video this month to demonstrate what a button battery does when placed inside a raw piece of chicken, simulating the damage it can cause when swallowed.

Within two hours the meat surrounding the battery begins to bubble and burn the chicken flesh. In three hours the surrounding area has blackened, and within 12 hours the burning has spread through the chicken and swelled the area.

It can take just two hours for a battery to burn through a child’s oesophagus and even if the battery is removed, the damage can continue leading to serious injury that requires surgery, Queensland Health warn.

The video was released in time for Christmas because although there are many everyday household items that include button batteries, many toys and decorations sold around holiday include the deadly item.

Button batteries inside a Santa decoration.
Many Christmas decorations include button batteries in easy to open compartments. Source: Facebook

Ms Rees has been vocal about the need for mandatory regulations to warn people before they purchase button batteries and items that are powered by them since she lost her daughter.

She created Bella’s Footprints to raise awareness of the dangerous items and also change the way button batteries are sold.

“Children’s musical birthday cards, flashing novelty items, decorations that flash and are targeted toward children, they are all filled with button batteries,” Ms Rees said.

Raising funds to erect billboards warning parents about the batteries is just one initiative Bella’s Footprints has achieved.

Mandatory safety standards introduced

In 2020, Australia became the first country in the world to introduce a mandatory safety and information standards for products containing button batteries.

The Australian Government standard requires secure battery compartments to stop children from accessing the batteries, compliance testing to demonstrate the batteries are secure, warnings and emergency advice on packaging, as well as child-resistant packaging for higher risk batteries.

David (left) and Lorraine Conway (right) in front of a billboard warning about the dangers of button batteries.
One of two billboards David (left) and Lorraine Conway (right) raised funds for after they lost their three-year-old daughter, Brittney. Source: Facebook

Manufacturers, suppliers and retailers have been given 18 months to ensure their products and packaging comply.

“The standards will enable the ACCC to take strong action to ensure that businesses sell safe products. We encourage all businesses to transition to the new standards as quickly as possible,” ACCC Deputy Chair Delia Rickard said.

Symptoms of ingesting button batteries

Queensland Health warns a battery can be swallowed or inserted without any symptoms, but keep an eye out for:

  • Coughing or noisy breathing

  • Chest pain or grunting

  • Drooling or vomiting

  • Bleeding or discharge

  • Food refusal or fever

Choose Christmas decorations and toys wisely

While button batteries are not limited to just children’s toys, Christmas is a time of the year where button batteries can be found in many decorations, toys and even cards.

“Button batteries are in so many items, such as children’s toys, remote controls, calculators and products that are popular at this time of the year like musical greeting cards and flameless candles,” Ms Sketcher-Baker said.

A card with a button battery inside is pictured left. On the right is a photo of batteries hanging on a supermarket display stand.
Bella's Footprints is pushing for button batteries to be sold out of reach of children and for products containing them to be sold with warnings. Source: Facebook

When choosing toys for your children, check which batteries are required or already inside the item, and make sure the battery compartment cannot be easily opened. Ideally it should be secured with screws or a two-step unlocking system.

“I urge all parents to weigh up the benefits with the risks of buying their kids presents with button batteries. Unless the battery compartment is heavily secured and difficult to break, it’s not worth the worry,” Ms Sketcher-Baker explained.

“There are safer alternatives that will bring your little ones as much joy.”

If you suspect a battery has been swallowed or inserted immediately call the Poisons Information Helpline on 13 11 26 for fast expert advice 24/7.

Do not let the child eat or drink and do not induce vomiting. If your child is bleeding or having difficulty breathing call 000 immediately.

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