Hair tourniquets: little-known hazards for babies

Hair tourniquets: little-known hazards for babies

(Marilyn Wilcken Photography)


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Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes

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SALT LAKE CITY — My 4-month-old baby had been extra fussy for days. I chalked her irritability up to recent immunizations and handed her off to my husband while I went to a church function.

Upon my return, three hours later, I found my husband bent over our screaming baby with tweezers in his hand. The second toe on her right foot was bright red, almost purple. Her skin was pinched in the vise-like grip of a hair, which had wrapped itself multiple times around her toe.

My husband had already unwound a good length of the offending hair. But, because of the amount of swelling and blood on her toe, he was unable to ascertain whether all the hair had been removed. Worried about the possibilities of amputation and infection, I took our baby to the emergency room.

Once there, the doctors assured me this phenomenon, known as a "hair tourniquet," was fairly common and totally treatable. With a nurse and me holding my baby’s food stable, the doctor used a high-powered magnifying glass and tweezer-like instruments to remove the bits of hair still encircling her toe.

After a lot of tears from my baby and a quantity of perspiration from me, the doctor finally proclaimed her toe hair-free. He also broke the news that when cases like this happen, it is usually the mother’s hair that has caused so much pain — which meant my mid-back length hair was the culprit.

Baby and I went home with instructions to watch the toe and make sure it returned back to its normal color. We were also told that Neosporin would need to be applied to her whole toe to help heal the cut and prevent infection.

Fortunately, within a week of the incident, my baby’s toe had almost fully healed. We were fortunate with our outcome. But there are several things can prevent a hair tourniquet altogether.

Examine baby’s appendages

Baby’s bath is the perfect time for examinations. Look for any appendages that are discolored and seem pinched. If there are any encircling hairs, remove them if they aren’t too tight. If the hair is unyielding, a visit to the doctor is safest.

A hair wrapped around a child's toe forms a hair tourniquet, cutting off blood supply to the top of the toe and causing the appendage to swell. (Photo: James Heilman, MD/Wikimedia Commons)
A hair wrapped around a child's toe forms a hair tourniquet, cutting off blood supply to the top of the toe and causing the appendage to swell. (Photo: James Heilman, MD/Wikimedia Commons)

Examine clothing

Hair tourniquets around toes are the most common, but they can also form around fingers and genitals. While hair is usually the perpetrator in tourniquets around baby appendages, threads from mittens can also strangle little fingers. Before putting on your baby’s socks, mittens or footed pajamas, examine them for loose hairs. Even if the hairs are short, remove them.

Wash clothing separately

Due to postpartum hair loss, it is common to find stray hairs around the house. When mom’s clothes are washed with baby’s, there is greater potential for those stray hairs to get caught on baby’s clothes, which then can be transferred around fingers or toes. Washing your infant’s clothing separately from the rest of the family’s is one way to lower the chances of it catching mom’s hair.

Wash clothing inside out

Wash your baby’s socks and footed pajamas inside out. This can help alleviate offending hairs from getting caught inside her clothes. Also, if socks and pajamas are already inside out, it’s easier to check them for stray hairs before dressing your baby.

Suspect a fussy baby

The ER doctor who treated my baby told me that parents usually don’t notice when the hair first wraps around a baby’s appendage because there isn’t any initial discoloration. However, after the offending hair has been there several days the appendage becomes swollen. As it swells, the hair cuts more deeply into the baby’s skin, causing increasing pain. The baby can be fussy for days before the harried parents finally visit the doctor. If your baby is fussy, have your pediatrician check the infant for any hair tourniquets.

Seeing my baby in pain was hard, but it was also a learning experience. I am now more aware of the dangers of hair tourniquets and have put all the above suggestions into practice.

Also, there was one other, perhaps more extreme, measure I took to ensure she never again suffers from a hair tourniquet. The day after our dramatic experience, I had the first hair stylist I could find cut 9 inches off my hair.

Have your babies experienced hair tourniquets? Share your stories and preventative methods in the comments section.


Elizabeth Reid has bachelor degrees in economics and history. She has worked in retail, medical billing, catering, education and business fields. Her favorite occupation is that of wife and mother.

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