Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is the most common medication to cause accidental poisonings of babies younger than 6 months, a new study says.

baby with pills on wooden table
Credit: MCarper/Shutterstock

When my son was a few months old, I walked out of the bathroom one day to find him sitting on the floor playing with a Tylenol bottle (#parentingFAIL). Even worse: When I quickly leaned down to snatch it from him, I realized the "childproof" lid had come off, and that a bunch of pills were now scattered around him. In a panic, I called poison control. But it turns out I needn't have worried. After a quick count of the pills, my husband and I realized our son hadn't injested any.

Close call. And now, a study of a decade's worth of poison control center calls reveals that many other parents have been in the same boat. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) tops the list of accidental posionings for babies under six month old, followed by H2-blockers for acid reflux, gastrointestinal medications, combination cold/cough products, antibiotics, and ibuprofen.

"I was surprised with the large number of exposures even in this young age group," said lead author Dr. A. Min Kang, a medical toxicology fellow at Banner-University Medical Center Phoenix in Arizona. "Pediatricians typically do not begin poison prevention education until about 6 months of age, since the traditional hazard we think about is the exploratory ingestion—that is when kids begin to explore their environment and get into things they are not supposed to."

Of the more than 270,000 exposures, a whopping 97 percent of them were unintentional. And while half the calls involved general unintentional ingestions—including children exploring their environment like mine had—over one-third were related to medication mistakes. Forty-seven percent involved dosage mistakes, and 43 percent involved giving a medication twice or too soon, giving a child the wrong medication, or similar errors.

Acetaminophen was involved in more than 22,000 of the medication exposures, and in nearly 5,000 general exposures. According to Dr. Kang, the high rate reflects the fact that it's recommended over ibuprofen for infants by most pediatricians. "The concern with too much acetaminophen is liver failure," he said. "Although, luckily, young children are considered to be somewhat less likely to experience this than an adult because the metabolism is a little different."

The American Academy of Pediatrics [AAP] does not recommend cough and cold meds for children younger than 6, and the FDA has issued a warning about the use of them in kids under age 2. So given the high number of medication exposures, it looks like there may be a need for physicians to better educate parents.

Dr. Kang says providing poison prevention education to caregivers earlier, even starting when a baby leaves the hospital, may help. In the meantime, he said all parents should have the poison control phone number—800-222-1222—programmed into their cellphones andf posted in their homes.

Hollee Actman Becker is a freelance writer, blogger, and a mom. Check out her website for more, and follow her on Twitter at @holleewoodworld.