By Nancy Gottesman
Everything changes during the holidays: the foods we eat, the people who visit, even the way our house looks and works.
It’s a joyous time, a lovely break from our overly scheduled lives during the other 11 months of the year. But when habits change, so must a parent’s observational skills. “A lot of accidents happen at this time of year because of the disruption of our normal routines,” says Charles Shubin, MD, director of Children’s Health Center at the Mercy FamilyCare in Baltimore, Md. “We let our guard down and overlook the usual things that protect our toddlers.”
We asked child-safety experts about the most common toddler mishaps this time of year and how to prevent them. We’re glad to be able to share them with you because we believe that a safe holiday is a happy one.
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Accidental ingestion can make a child very sick. They’re very pretty and festive, but seasonal flora (which also includes English ivy and Jerusalem cherry plants) are potentially harmful if eaten. Because these plants are so colorful and attractive, they’re also very appealing to curious toddlers. Symptoms of plant poisoning can include diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, rashes and fatigue.
If your child is exposed to these plants and seems inappropriately sleepy, starts to walk funny, is sick to his stomach or just isn’t acting normally, call the poison center immediately, advises Dana Hargunani, MD, director of the Doernbecher Children’s Safety Center at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. The National Poison Center is open 24/7/365: (800) 222-1222.
PREVENT AN ACCIDENT:
It’s pretty simple, really. Place plants up high where kids can’t reach them and be meticulous about picking up all dried leaves that fall on the floor. Each plant carries a different chemical that can be dangerous to both kids and pets—even when dry. If ingested, these plants can definitely ruin your holiday.
TODDLER HOLIDAY HAZARD: Houseguests
Infectious illness can be introduced into your home. “New people bring new viruses into your environment,” explains Shubin, who is also an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. During wintertime, everyone is inside, touching the same toys, plates and doorknobs, making it easy for disease to spread. Plus, older family members—who are generally not accustomed to childproofing—bring their medications with them. “Little pills look like candy to young children,” warns Shubin.
PREVENT AN ACCIDENT:
Wash your child’s hands—and yours—every hour. Keep a few bottles of alcohol-based hand cleaner (like Purel) in your home’s common areas (den, dining room, kitchen) so everyone can clean their fingers as often as possible. “There’s not a lot we can do to prevent disease,” says Shubin. “But frequently washing your hands is the one thing that will make a big difference.”
As to Grandma’s meds, experts suggest that guests be asked to take pills, lipsticks, powders—anything a toddler will want to bite—out of their purse or suitcase when they arrive. Place these items in a lockbox stored on a shelf out of a child’s reach and sightline, and give your guest the key.
TODDLER HOLIDAY HAZARD: Candles (on the tree, in the menorah, as décor around the house)
One accidental bump could cause a burn or a house fire. Candles are a big part of everybody’s celebration, no matter which holiday you observe. Although lovely and atmospheric, however, they increase the risk of fire during the winter months.
“We see a lot more accidental fires at holiday time thanks to candles, heaters, dried-out trees and overloaded sockets,” says Rene Hopkins, RN, coordinator of Safe Kids East Central, led by MCGHealth Children’s Medical Center in Augusta, Ga.
Smoke inhalation from a house fire can be particularly dangerous to young children—their heartbeat and breathing rates are much faster than those of adults, so the smoke can circulate and harm their body tissues more quickly.
PREVENT AN ACCIDENT:
• Use battery-operated flameless candles. They’re made of real wax and provide real ambience, but without the flame—or peril.
• Put new batteries in your smoke detectors before the holidays. And store extra batteries for all those presents your child will be opening. “You don’t want people tempted to remove smoke alarm batteries when their 3-year-old starts screaming that he wants to play with his new toy,” exclaims Hopkins.
• If you must have real candles, never use them on your tree or leave the room while they’re burning. Also, keep candles away from windowsills, mantles and curtains. It takes just seconds for a spark from a candle to burst into a flame.
TODDLER HOLIDAY HAZARD: Seasonal toddies
Ever forget where you left your drink? Toddlers are pretty good sleuths. And that means alcohol poisoning is another common risk during the season. Kids imitate adults and will sample whatever you’re drinking if they find half-filled glasses left around the house. Toddlers are much more affected by spirits than we are, so even small amounts can produce adverse reactions like vomiting and irregular breathing.
PREVENT AN ACCIDENT:
Don’t leave your partially empty cups lying around. Also, we do a lot of cooking with extracts (which have a high alcohol content) at this time of the year, so be sure to keep those and all alcoholic products out of your little one’s hands.
NEXT HOLIDAY HAZARD: O, TANNENBAUM
TODDLER HOLIDAY HAZARD: O, Tannenbaum
Fire and tree toppling. Each holiday season, fires claim the lives of 400 people, injure more than 1,650 and cause nearly $1 billion in damage. It takes only three to five seconds for a tree to become fully engulfed in flames. (The U.S. Fire Administration web site even features a disquieting video demonstrating how this happens. Click here.)
Dry and old trees, overloaded light/ornament circuits or proximity to a heat source (like a space heater or an electrical outlet) are usually to blame. Other toddler hazards include unsecured trees that can be pulled down by kids or pets, and too-low branches with needles that can poke little eyes and scratch little faces. “What’s knee level to us is eye level to a toddler,” reminds Hopkins.
PREVENT AN ACCIDENT:
• When you’re choosing a tree, make sure the needles are green and hard to pull from branches. Needles won’t break if the tree has been freshly cut; if needles fall off easily, the tree has probably dried out already.
• Don’t leave your tree up for more than two weeks and keep the stand filled with water at all times. Never place the tree near a heat source.
• Inspect holiday lights for frayed wires, gaps in the insulation and broken or cracked sockets before draping on the tree. After installing, periodically check the wires to make sure they’re not warm to the touch. In addition, make sure your lights have the UL seal of approval (an Underwriters Laboratories seal means lights have been safety-tested for sparking). A final word on lights: Never use “indoor” lights outside your home. They’re not weather-resistant, so moisture could corrode the socket and wiring, increasing fire risk.
• Secure the tree in a stand that’s sturdy enough to prevent tipping. Then trim or cut off lower branches to protect toddler’s faces.
• Never put branches in a fireplace or wood-burning stove. When the tree is dry, toss—or recycle—immediately.
NEXT HOLIDY HAZARD: ORNAMENTS
WHY:PREVENT AN ACCIDENT:
Keep all ornaments and lights out of children’s hands. If it’s small enough to fit in a toddler’s mouth, it’s much too small to play with. Keep ornaments with tiny parts or metal hooks off the lower branches, where they have way too much toddler appeal. Be careful of bubble lights, too: They break easily and can cut tiny hands (or airways), and the liquid inside contains harmful chemicals.
TODDLER HOLIDAY HAZARD: Gifts
Every year, more than 116,000 kids under age 14 are treated in ERs for toy-related injuries (most cases involve children 0–4 years old). Even if your child is a prodigy, he should not be playing with toys designed for older children. There’s a reason for the rather insistent age-specific tags on toys: Playthings made for kids 5 years and older simply aren’t safe for toddlers. Manufacturers test their products and label them with an age designation to protect young children from choking, falling, getting scratched or worse. “You need to consider more than your child’s cognitive ability when buying presents,” says Hopkins. “Heed what the label says.”
PREVENT AN ACCIDENT:In addition to buying age-appropriate gifts (e.g., a 3-year-old should not have a dart gun, nor should any child under 6 be given Latex balloons), supervision is key. Toys must be used in a safe and proper environment. Here’s a rule of thumb to help prevent choking hazards: If a toy fits through a toilet paper roll, it’s inappropriate for 1- to 3-year-olds. Remember to think about what’s under the tree, too. Left to their own devises, inquiring toddlers will open gifts and are likely to find aftershave, perfume and bottles of booze as well as toys that can harm. Better to hide the presents until the family is ready to open them.
NEXT: THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS CHILDPROOFING
There’s No Such Thing as Childproofing
“Nothing replaces direct supervision—during any season,” stresses Rene Hopkins, RN, coordinator of Safe Kids East Central at MCGHealth Children’s Medical Center in Augusta, Ga. “Childproofing is really only a layer of protection that gives you time to intervene.” For instance, a tenacious toddler will find a way to get around—or over—an indoor gate. But while your child is climbing, that gate allows you the few seconds you need to get to him before he gets to the tree.
During the holidays, you bring things into the house that aren’t usually there—lights, trees, new guests—undoing all the childproof protections you’ve instituted during the year. So along with the bright lights, fancy foods and cozy fires, add one more tradition to your family holiday: Designate one adult to keep an eye on your toddler at all times.
Avoid accidents this year with these childproofing holiday tips.