Nursemaids Elbow Is Common And Shouldn’t Make You Feel Like A Parenting Failure

by Clint Edwards
Juanmonino / iStock

In 2009, I was walking in front of a hotel with my 2-year-old son, Tristan. He was checking out a flowerbed. The sprinklers were on, so he wanted to stick his face in the water. I told him we needed to go inside. I was holding his hand when he went limp, like he always did when I told him to come along, and then I felt a pop in his arm.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but a 2-year-old’s joints, particularly their elbow can slide around like a foot in an untied shoe, so when Tristan screamed out in pain, his right arm hanging limp at his side, I was terrified.

We were staying in southern Utah, attending a Shakespearian Festival with my in-laws. I was outside the hotel, trying to keep Tristan quiet so my wife could sleep.

I was 24, a new young father, so I naturally assumed that I’d seriously injured my son. Up until that point, Tristan had seemed very durable, always falling and getting back up. However, I had a deep fear that I was going to somehow kill him. This was my first fear, my most prominent fear, as a parent, and I think it’s sadly the most common anxiety for new parents.

Before having Tristan, it seemed like I was bombarded with tragic stories of lost children due to simple parental mistakes, accidents. In fact, most of my early years as a father were fraught with impostor syndrome. I wasn’t the greatest teenager, often getting in trouble, and when hearing that my wife was pregnant, I had more than one friend say, “Are you sure it’s legal for you to have children?” I was waiting for a government agency to swing by and tell me I wasn’t qualified to be a father, so anything that might help prove that fact (in my mind) felt like complete failure.

We were still outside. I looked at Tristan, his right arm limp against his coveralls, tears streaming down his face, and I felt a rush of anxiety. I was pretty sure I hadn’t killed him, so it was easy to check that off my list. But the final two fears — of permanently injuring him, of having my son taken away — sat heavy on my chest.

I cradled him in my arms and took him into the hotel. Mel was up, doing her hair, when I brought Tristan into the room and sat him down. When he saw Mel, he lifted his left arm, and it was clear that he had intentions of lifting both, but the pain was just too much. And when I saw that, I nearly wept. He was so little and sweet, and it seemed like he shouldn’t have to feel pain. I’d never had thoughts like that until I became a father.

“What happened?” Mel asked.

I told her about Tristan going limp when I tried to get him to come inside. I told her about the pop, and how I was pretty sure I’d broken him.

“I honestly have no idea what to do,” I said. “Do you think it will just fix itself?”

Thinking back now, what to do seems obvious. Take Tristan to the doctor. But honestly, I’d never had to take him to the doctor for anything other then a regular checkup or a cold. We didn’t have very good insurance; I was still in college. I will admit that I was worried about how much taking a child out of network would cost. I’d never done that, and I didn’t really understand how it worked.

I was also afraid that the doctors wouldn’t believe my story for one reason or another, and I’d be put on trial, which would lead to Tristan being taken away. In hindsight, all of this seems very paranoid and completely irrational, but the fact is, whenever one of my children has been hurt, I find myself in a stew of emotions, and it’s always difficult to act rationally.

Over the years and with each new child (we have three now), I have gotten better at handling situations like this. But right then, as a new father, I was shitting myself.

Mel, who is usually the voice of reason, held Tristan on the bed until he calmed down. Then she said, “Let’s call a nurse.”

“We can do that?” I asked.

Mel looked at me like I’d been living in a hole, and said, “Yeah, there’s a number on the back of our insurance card.”

I called the number, and as I explained things to the nurse, Tristan began to stomp around the room. He seemed to be acting fine, even laughing a little, outside of his right arm hanging limply at his side. The nurse told me that when Tristan went limp while I was holding his hand, it probably resulted in a partial dislocation of his elbow’s alignment, causing an injury known as Nursemaid’s elbow.

“It’s very common. You will probably need to bring him into an urgent care, and they should be able to pop it back in.”

I later discovered that Nursemaid’s elbow was an incredibly common injury among toddlers, and my son would go on to pop his elbow out of alignment a dozen more times until I felt like we should be getting some sort of a punch card (10th visit free) at the doctor’s office. Anything from your child going limp while holding your hand, to tripping and falling at the playground, to rolling over in an awkward way, can cause it, and all you really can do is take the kid to see a doctor and have them pop it back in. Eventually, it became a normal part of our lives; we got used to it, but clearly we hadn’t yet arrived at that point as we sat in the hotel room that night.

The nurse was giving me directions to the nearest urgent care when Tristan tripped over my foot, fell on his right shoulder, and started crying again. I told the nurse to hold on for a moment. Mel picked him back up, and suddenly he could use his right arm. I told the nurse what happened, and she said, “That’s great. Sounds like he popped it back in.”

What the hell?

While I was happy that the problem fixed itself, I couldn’t help but think about a line from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation when Uncle Eddie said this about his daughter, “She falls down a well, her eyes go cross. She gets kicked by a mule. They go back. I don’t know.”

Suddenly I found myself confiding in the nurse. I don’t know if I was searching for her approval or just trying to make myself not sound like a shitty father.

“This is so embarrassing,” I said. “I feel like a terrible parent. I mean, I’m trying. I love the kid. Gosh, am I doing something wrong?”

She let out a forced laugh, and I couldn’t tell if I’d crossed some line, or if this was something she heard all the time. She took a breath, and then she said something that really stuck with me.

“I’ve been a parent for a long time. And I talk to a lot of nervous parents. It’s not easy taking care of little kids. Sometimes they are like a ball bouncing around the room, and all you can do is try to catch them. And even then they still get hurt. The fact that you are clearly very worried about his well-being says a lot. I think you’re doing just fine.”

I got a little misty, and I couldn’t tell if it was from the relief of knowing that Tristan was okay, or if it was because of what she had said. Perhaps it was both. But what I do know is that I said this:

“Thank you. I needed to hear that.” And I did. And maybe you do too.