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How to Keep Babies and Toddlers Safe During the Holidays

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Dr. Lewis First - COURTESY
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  • Dr. Lewis First

The holiday season can be a joyous and busy time for families celebrating with young children. But even though many people will skip large gatherings this year due to the pandemic, immediate families can still decorate their homes, exchange gifts and enjoy festive meals together.

To ensure that babies and toddlers stay safe in the home this season, Dr. Lewis First, chief of pediatrics at the University of Vermont Children's Hospital, offers some helpful advice for childproofing for the holidays.

KIDS VT: What are the safety hazards common during the holidays?

LEWIS FIRST: Each year around the December holidays, about 18,000 kids end up in emergency rooms due to falls, burns, objects that fall on them, or because they swallowed or choked on something they shouldn't have put in their mouths. Most of those injuries are easily preventable.

If families are setting up a Christmas tree, make sure it's secure. Keep a live tree well watered but don't add chemical preservatives to that water should a curious child, infant or toddler try to drink or taste the liquid in the tree stand. Make sure the needles aren't easy to pull off, so kids can't eat them. The drier the tree, the greater the fire hazard. Trees should be set up away from floor heaters, wood stoves, fireplaces and other heat sources. An artificial tree should be fire resistant. A good rule of thumb is, no more than three strands of lights on one extension cord. Always keep small ornaments and light bulbs high on the tree so that small children don't try to eat them.

Check older string lights for frayed cords and broken sockets. Older family heirloom ornaments may be lined or painted with lead paints, and even newer LED lights and light cords may contain lead. So can tinsel, which should be kept away from small hands. It's a good idea to use gloves when decorating, and wash hands thoroughly afterwards to avoid the risk of lead poisoning. Younger children should not help decorate if lead products are being used, so check the labeling and, if not sure whether lead is an ingredient, make sure anyone that does decorate washes their hands thoroughly when done hanging lights and ornaments.

Finally, eating mistletoe or holly berries in excess can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Poinsettia may cause a skin rash. If you suspect your young one has eaten a plant, and you're unsure what it was, call the poison control center at 1-800-222-1222.

KVT: What's your advice for fire safety during the holidays?

LF: Candles should be kept in places where small children cannot reach them. Blow out all candles and turn off holidays lights before going to bed, and never leave young children unattended in a room with a lit candle, fireplace or woodstove. Keep matches out of their reach, and put barriers in front of all woodstoves and fireplaces, even those with grills and glass shields since children can touch the glass and potentially burn themselves. This is also a good time to get chimneys and flues cleaned, and to make sure that all smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors are working properly.

KVT: Any tips for childproofing the kitchen?

LF: I suggest that parents create a "no zone," with tape on the floor, around stoves, ovens and drawers with sharp objects, that children are taught to not enter. Prevent scalding injuries by keeping coffee makers and Crock-Pots away from the edge of counters and turning pot handles inward on the stove so they won't get knocked over. Avoid using tablecloths that children can pull off and drop hot liquids, silverware, glasses or dishes on themselves. Keep appliance cords out of children's reach, and be sure that all electrical outlets not in use have safety covers. And, to avoid food poisoning, never put cooked foods on a plate that previously had raw foods on it.

Make sure any alcoholic beverages and snacking foods are stored away from small children when enjoyed by adults later in the evening, so children don't find them, drink them or choke on them in the morning when parents are still asleep.

KVT: Any advice for choosing child-safe gifts?

LF: When you're buying toys for an infant or toddler, think big — that is, toys that are too large to fit in their mouth that they can potentially choke on. Always buy toys that are age and developmentally appropriate, not toys that you think they'll grow into.

Older siblings who get toys with small parts, such as Lego sets, must be absolutely sure to put them away when they're done playing. Otherwise, those pieces can look like candy to small children and become choking hazards.

When buying stuffed animals, be sure that they're machine washable and flame resistant, and that any small parts are attached securely. Toys never should be left in a crib, and no infant or toddler toy should have a string longer than seven inches. Otherwise, it can get wrapped around a child's neck or tiny fingers. Here's an easy trick to determine whether a toy is large enough to not become a choking hazard: If it can pass easily through the center of a toilet paper roll, it's too small for infants and toddlers.

Children younger than 2 do not need digital toys of any kind. For children older than 2, digital toys should be limited to no more than an hour a day and only used in the presence of a caregiver, and ideally used together with that parent or caregiver and not just to keep a child busy while the adult does something else.

Finally, toys with button batteries must be secured so that the batteries cannot be removed by kids. Button batteries can look like shiny candy but are extremely toxic if they're swallowed, especially if they get stuck in a child's esophagus. If you think your child has ingested a button battery, treat it like a medical emergency. Contact the poison control center or your child's health care professional to determine if you need to bring your child to the nearest emergency room as soon as possible.

KVT: What about gift wrap?

LF: When families are finished opening presents, make sure that all bags, ribbons, wrapping paper and bows are cleaned up. Plastic bags can become suffocation hazards, and small bows can become choking hazards. Ornament hooks should be picked up because they can cause puncture wounds and be choking hazards as well.

While all these tips may sound like celebrating the December holidays can only be dangerous for everyone, keeping these suggestions in mind will result in a safe and wonderful holiday season for young children and their families. Happy holidays!

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