Subscriber OnlyYour Family

‘There should be free first aid training for all expectant parents’

From choking to burns, avoidable deaths are only avoidable if more people understand basic first aid skills

Nurse Leo Ralph Publico Villamayor happened to be passing the scene of the stabbings outside Gaelscoil Choláiste Mhuire in Dublin’s north inner city on November 23rd. He performed CPR on one of the child victims until an ambulance arrived.

He is a medical professional, but what if more of us “lay people” were trained in basic first aid? What if maternity hospitals started to offer infant first aid classes free of charge?

It could surely make the difference between life and death.

A book I often turn to as a parent of very young children is The Irish Dad’s Survival Guide to Pregnancy and Beyond, by David Caren. I remember reading it just before my first daughter started weaning and being astonished by the author’s advice that grapes needed to be cut up into quarters.


Surely such tedious caution was unnecessary?

Then, in January of this year, Joshua Odonkor, a two-year-old boy from Cork, choked and died while eating a grape.

Tragically, it is sometimes seemingly benign and simple things like this that threaten the lives of our young children, rather than the horror of the events in November on Dublin’s Parnell Square. Potentially avoidable death. But they are only avoidable if more people understand basic first aid skills.

First aid courses should be offered free of charge in Ireland to all first-time parents.

When my wife and I attended our maternity hospital’s first-time parents course I don’t recall any first aid demonstrations in the event of choking, accidental poisoning or burns. We subsequently forked out for a private course, which we felt was vital if you are challenged with the somewhat terrifying prospect of keeping a human baby alive. It baffles me that such a course, outlining basic treatments for choking, mouth to mouth and CPR, is not part and parcel of the antenatal process in Ireland.

The National Paediatric Mortality Register (NPMR) collates data on how children die in Ireland. Between 2019 and 2021, 33 per cent of injury-related deaths to children between the ages of one and 14 were caused by choking, drowning, burns and fires, farm accidents, high falls and other external causes.

The NPMR, which is published by the National Office of Clinical Audit, states that “many child deaths are avoidable”. When we recognise that a third of injury-related deaths result from the above categories, it isn’t difficult to understand how many of these deaths are indeed preventable, if only more of us were trained in basic first aid skills.

The National Maternity Hospital responded to my request for information on the provision of education in this area. “We do not currently offer first aid classes as part of our general antenatal parent education classes,” they explained. They do, however, offer CPR and safety training to parents and carers of babies who have been admitted to their neonatal intensive care unit, prior to their discharge home.

But surely this should be provided to all parents, to prevent babies ending up in the intensive care unit in the future? Providing free first aid courses would not only save lives, but would save the State money in the long run.

Most parents will be able to describe in horrifying detail the intense trauma of a toddler choking on their food. It often happens completely out of the blue. In the middle of a family meal, for example. Everyone is laughing, the atmosphere is joyous and suddenly everything turns to black when the choking begins.

Panic sets in.

“What do I do again? Do I turn her upside down and slap her back? How many chest compressions am I supposed to do? Google it while I turn her upside down!”

It is unbelievably scary. But it doesn’t need to be. If we were all well-rehearsed in how to carry out vital paediatric first aid protocol, then we could move quickly and efficiently. And, most importantly, calmly.

When a small child is choking, the difference between life and death is a matter of minutes. Seconds. Waiting for an ambulance may well be too late.

While researching this article, I came across an extraordinary example of just how potent first aid skills can be as a defence shield, when things suddenly go wrong.

In 2019, a two-year-old boy in Kerry choked on peanuts. After a few moments, his body went completely limp. This is a parent’s worst nightmare. His airways were blocked. His mother, who happened to be a nurse, sprang to action and carried out two minutes and 58 seconds of intense CPR.

The little boy survived.

This mother later appealed to parents to get acquainted with first aid skills. She told the Irish Examiner: “Please learn CPR and keep your skills updated. It could make the difference to your child.”

The reality is that the best way to ensure as many parents as possible get trained up is to make it easily accessible. The State needs to remove financial obstacles to first aid training and provide courses free of charge to all expectant parents.