Intubating An Infant or Toddler

This article discussion some of the key anatomy, physiology, and technical points to intubating an infant or small child safely. I’ve been hard at work on writing and illustrating my upcoming book on pediatric airway management so I thought I would spend some time talking about care of our littlest patients.

Providers who infrequently care for children less than two years of age are often rightfully anxious when faced with a sick child, especially if airway management is required. This is especially true if the child is less than one. Healthy respect is certainly indicated because airway complications are one of the leading causes of pediatric cardiac arrest.

Children are not small adults. From infants to toddlers to teenagers, the anatomy and physiology of the child is continuously morphing until finally reaching the adult form and function. We all know this instinctively. When we look at a child we can often tell how old he or she is simply by looking at head size, characteristics of the face, length of neck, shape of the body, and how long the arms and legs are related to the trunk. It should not be surprising that the inside of the child is changing as well.

Photo placing oral airway in preparation to mask ventilating an infant

Even placing an oral airway and using a mask in an infant can seem more challenging because of the size and fragility of the patient.

Infants and young children are small. The head of a newborn infant can fit on the palm of my hand. The palm of a premature infant’s hand may be the same size as my thumbnail. It’s challenging to open the airway of such a small infant when adult fingers dwarf the size of the baby’s mouth and all of the instruments are smaller. And babies are fragile, with little reserve.

Like adults, children can be small or tall, lean or overweight. But unlike adults, their airway anatomy is changing shape and structural relationships as they grow. A particular 2 year old may be as tall as a particular 6 year old, or as heavy as a particular 8 year old, but all have very different airways.

Intubating an infant or small child is more of a challenge than an older child or adult both because of their anatomical differences as well as their physiologic predisposition for hypoxia. One can certainly argue that faced with elective care, that only experienced providers should manage the airways of infants and children less than two. However, medical care is not always elective.

Faced with a sick child, especially in more urgent settings, anyone who can ventilate and intubate an adult can also ventilate or intubate an infant or toddler safely —if they take the differences in anatomy and physiology into account, and are gentle and methodical in their approach. Illustrations and photos from Anyone Can Intubate: a Step by Step Guide, and Pediatric Airway Management: a Step by Step Guide. Continue reading