I Am The Reason You Don’t Give Babies Honey

by Kelli Tager
Originally Published: 
A two-part collage of old photos of Kelli Tager with her mom as a baby and Kelli Tager in a bed
Kelli Tager

Would you give your baby peanut butter? How about strawberries? These foods had been considered to carry potential risks to your child so we’ve been told over and over again to proceed with caution.

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But honey? Why does no one talk about honey? Half my friends who returned with their new baby from the hospital were only vaguely warned to stay away from it, and the other half were told nothing.

Luckily, they know me.

So let me tell you about this little slice of my life.

Growing up, I knew no one else had a scar on their neck, but honestly, I kinda thought it was cool. However, by junior high I did get pretty tired of other kids gaping at me and asking in utter junior-high disgust: “What’s that hole in your neck?!” So I started having fun.

Knife fight in New York. One-fanged vampire bit me.

What can I say, it was junior high.

It wasn’t until I had my first child and looked at her when she was six months old and thought, “This is when it happened to me” that I fully appreciated the horror my parents went through.

Six months old is when parents can finally introduce tastes of “real” foods to their babies and my mom (being the groovy hippie 1970s mom she was) blissfully began to introduce me to a world of tastes from oatmeal, to yogurt, to mustard, to (yes) honey.

She began to notice I seemed a little listless. The doctor said it was a cold.

Then, when she was trying to nurse me, she watched the milk come back out of my mouth and realized I couldn’t swallow.

I was rushed to the hospital and immediately given a feeding tube up my nose and a tracheotomy.

I had become paralyzed from my head (including my eyes) all the way to my feet. My mother says I looked like a rag doll.

I couldn’t move. I couldn’t swallow. I couldn’t breathe.

Stupid honey.

But this was in the days before they realized that what I had was called “infantile botulism,” which is essentially baby food poisoning. Raw honey carries bacteria spores which babies’ tummies can’t take.

So, half the doctors thought I had a brain tumor. Obviously, my parents weren’t too pleased with this diagnosis, but fortunately, half the doctors thought it might be something else, they just didn’t know what.

My parents waited.

They watched babies die around them as I sat listless in the hospital.

My dad finally had to go back to work. My mom never left my side.

Finally one day, my dad walked into the door of my hospital room and noticed something different — I was following him with my eyes.

And little by little, I did get better. So much so that finally, after a 2.5-month stay, the hospital sent me home.

By that point, I’d completely forgotten how to swallow so my parents had to gavage feed me. But since I could move, now I could bat the tube away so they would have to force it up my nose. Up until I was about ten years old, I would panic and swat away anything came close to my face.

I was in occupational therapy because they didn’t believe I would ever walk.

I showed them.

My fine motor skills were woefully behind so my parents held me back in first grade to prep for all the writing I’d be doing in elementary school.

I like to say I was held back because I flunked finger painting.

Two years later, my the doctors called my parents and told them, “FYI, it was not a brain tumor, it was something called infantile botulism.”

When I first got sick, no one knew what honey could do. I was very lucky.

Now people do know how dangerous it is — that it can kill infants. Now, there’s a warning label on honey that says don’t feed this to children under one years old. Now honey is pasteurized so the chances of contracting botulism have significantly diminished — but there’s a still a chance.

And still, I hear stories of people putting it on pacifiers because no one told them otherwise at the hospital. My baby cookbook simply lists honey as part of the “one year and up section” along with fish and citrus fruits. Giving a baby a taste of an orange is not the same risk as giving them a taste of honey. An orange can cause a bad rash, not botulism.

So please, I ask of you, spread the word. I’m not asking for cyber-fame from my almost-death. All I’m asking is you spread the word to your friends, your family, your parent groups, and so forth that feeding honey to a child under one year’s old can actually be fatal.

And if they don’t believe you, send them to me. I can’t show them my parents’ scars because those aren’t visible, but I can show them my scar because it wasn’t from one-fanged vampire or a knife fight; it was from a tracheotomy that saved my life.

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