Your baby has you wrapped around his little finger. But something else — namely, stray hairs — can get wrapped around his finger or toe, cutting off the circulation. It’s known as a hair tourniquet, and it can be dangerous if it goes unnoticed.

Loose strings from clothing or blankets can cause the same issue.

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How could you overlook a problem like that? Actually, it’s easy. “Your baby’s toes and fingers are very small, and a piece of string or hair may be hard to see,” explains Harry Broome, MD, a pediatrician with MVP Kids Care in Phoenix, Arizona. Also, babies’ feet are often tucked into booties, hiding their tootsies.

“If a hair tourniquet remains in place over a few days, the area on both sides of it can become swollen, and you can get a bit of new skin growth over it,” says Broome.

Less frequently, hair or string can get tangled up in a baby’s tongue or uvula, that dangly thing in the back of the throat. If hair falls into a wiggly baby’s diaper, it can even get wrapped around the baby’s penis or labia.

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Fortunately, most wrap-arounds are loose enough not to hurt, and they cause no lasting harm if they’re removed quickly. But sometimes a tourniquet can be tight enough to make a baby cry in pain. And in rare cases, if left undiscovered, it can damage a finger or toe so badly that antibiotics, surgery or even amputation is needed.

But you’re never going to let it get that far. Broome says a few simple steps can help keep hair tourniquets from wreaking havoc.

  • Look for loose strings and stray hairs on your little one’s clothing and in the crib. (New mothers often go through a period of stepped-up hair shedding due to hormones, so be especially aware of stray hairs then.) Sweep inside the feet of socks and onesies to make sure there are no pesky loops of thread at the seams.
  • Do a daily toe-and-finger check. Baths or diaper changes are great times to tackle this. Give your baby’s hands and feet a once-over. “Look for a big dent or line around a toe or finger,” Broome recommends — if a hair or string is wrapped very tightly, you won’t necessarily be able to see it. Also check for any swollen or discolored fingers or toes.
  • Keep a magnifying glass handy. If you do spot or suspect a hair tourniquet, you may need a close-up view to unwrap it or ease it off.
  • Call your pediatrician if it doesn’t come loose. If that hair or string is really stuck firmly in place, get help without delay, even if it’s nighttime. A doctor can remove a hair tourniquet by sliding a small instrument under it and then cutting it, says Broome.
  • Follow your doctor’s after-care instructions. Sometimes, a cut must be made to remove an embedded tourniquet. Make sure you keep any follow-up appointments; your baby’s doctor will check to make sure the area is healing properly. In the meantime, apply antibiotic ointment to the cut if your doctor prescribes one (she may also prescribe oral antibiotics), and get instructions about what pain relievers you can give. Elevating the affected hand or foot can help minimize any swelling.
  • Don’t ignore unexplained fussiness. Consult your pediatrician if your baby is crying inconsolably but there’s no fever, rash or any other obvious cause for the discomfort. “A hair tourniquet is one of the things I’ll routinely check for in those instances,” says Broome.

The good news? By 18 months or so, hair tourniquets become far less of a danger. Your active toddler will be using those busy little hands and feet to get into all sorts of other trouble instead.

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