By Chris Woolston, M.S.
How can I make my home safe for my child?
Parents worry endlessly about how to protect their children from everything -- from ill-intentioned strangers to random bullets and stray dogs -- but many overlook one of the biggest threats to their children's safety and well-being: their own home. Experts say that children ages 1 to 4 are more likely to be injured by falls, burns, drowning, choking, cuts, or poisoning than by a stranger. As former surgeon general C. Everett Koop said, "If a disease were killing our children in the proportion that accidents are, people would demand that this killer be stopped."
There are a slew of childproofing gadgets on the market to make your home safer. But Anne Altman of Childproofer, a consulting and contracting company in Forestville, California, cautions parents that the best protection is still supervision. "I'd rather not recommend a product than suggest one that gives parents a false sense of security," she says.
Here are some other tips for a safer home:
- Put safety plugs in all unused electrical outlets, or place large pieces of furniture in front of them to prevent your child from sticking her finger or a toy into the holes. Use outlet covers and outlet plates to protect children from electrical shock and possible electrocution, and be sure that your child can't easily remove the outlet protector.
- Attach cushioned corner-and-edge bumpers to the sharp corners of furniture like coffee tables and desks. You can also use them on fireplace hearths to soften falls against a hard brick or metal edge.
- Consider the potential hazard of anything you drop into the garbage. If you discard batteries, paper clips, plastic bags, or other dangerous items, your trash should have a child-resistant cover.
- Keep pens, scissors, letter openers, staplers, paper clips, and other sharp instruments in drawers with safety latches or locks. Prevent accidental poisonings by installing safety latches or locks on drawers and cabinets in the kitchen, bathrooms, and other areas where your child could reach medicines or household cleaners. Some children are able to open child-resistant bottles, so lock those away as well.
- Make sure your child's toys are appropriate for her age. If she still explores the world with her mouth, she should never play with balloons, buttons, toys with small parts, or anything else that could choke her. (A 3-year-old should never play with anything smaller than her own mouth.)
- Install smoke detectors in every level of your house and near the bedroom and kitchen. Check monthly to be sure they're working, and change the batteries annually. A working smoke detector cuts the chances of dying in a fire in half, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
- Install a carbon monoxide detector outside your bedrooms, particularly if you use gas or oil heat and have an attached garage. If possible, find one that plugs into an electrical outlet and shows you the level of carbon monoxide at any given time. If you have a two-story house, put one on each floor.
- Avoid drapes and blinds with cords; dangling cords are a strangulation hazard. If you must have them, cut the cord loop and tie up cords with window cleats. To order free window blind cord safety tassels, call the Window Covering Safety Council at (800) 506-4636, or visit their Web site at www.windowcoverings.org.
- Place colorful stickers on large areas of glass, such as sliding glass doors, to prevent them from "disappearing." Always open casement windows from the top, and fit them with locks so small children can't open them. Low windows shouldn't open more than 5 inches; keep furniture and other climbing structures away from them. Use window guards and safety netting for balconies, windows, decks, and landings.
- Make sure area rugs have non-slip backs or put non-slip pads underneath; this will help prevent falls.
- Use safety gates and door gates. Every year, an estimated 2.5 million children are treated in emergency rooms for fall-related injuries. Choose a gate that has a straight top edge and a rigid mesh screen to keep your child out of rooms that are off-limits. Put a safety gate at the top of the stairs and another three steps from the bottom to keep toddlers out of harm's way. If you have an older safety gate, make sure it doesn't have a "V" shape large enough for a child's head and neck to fit through. "And remember," says Altman, "childproofing is an ongoing process: The gate you put at the top of the stairs for your 1-year-old may become her favorite climbing structure when she's 2."
- Hide lamp and appliance cords behind heavy furniture, or conceal them with a special hide-a-cord device. Tall, potentially tippy lamps should be secured behind furniture.
- Use a cordless phone so that you can continually keep an eye on your young children, especially if they're in the tub, a swimming pool, or other dangerous areas.
- Use door stops to help prevent your child from getting her fingers mashed in the door hinges, and install door locks to keep her out of the swimming pool or rooms with potential dangers.
- Put a lock on the toilet to prevent accidental drowning; toddlers can drown in a few inches of water.
- Keep first-aid supplies on hand, and tell babysitters and other caregivers where to find the supplies and how to respond in an emergency. Be sure you've also poison-proofed your home to protect your children from hazardous substances, including checking the household plants to make sure all of them are nonpoisonous.
- Turn down the water heater to 120 degrees Fahrenheit, or medium, to prevent scalding burns.
- Get the lead out. If you live in a building constructed before 1978, it may contain lead paint. If your child breathes lead dust or fumes, chews on paint chips or window sills, or swallows anything with lead in it, she can get lead poisoning, which can cause learning disabilities and other neurological problems. If there's lead paint in your home, have it completely removed by a licensed professional trained in hazardous waste removal or covered with an approved sealant; you and your child should also stay out of the house until the job is done. (Don't attempt to remove the lead paint yourself: Home removal methods can spread hazardous lead fumes and dust throughout your house.) For information on how to get a paint chip analyzed, call the National Lead Information Center at (800) 424-5323.
Imported vinyl miniblinds are a far less familiar source of household lead. In 1996, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission discovered that some of these blinds, which use lead as a stabilizer for the plastic, pose a lead poisoning hazard to young children who touch the blinds and then put their fingers in their mouths. If you have children 6 or younger, remove any miniblinds made before July 1996 (or any you're not sure are lead-free), and replace them with new lead-free vinyl blinds. Look for cartons labeled "nonleaded formula" or "no lead added."
Even if your house is adequately childproofed, you still need to practice safe habits. Cook on the back burners of your stove, and turn all pot handles away from the edge of the stove so your child can't pull them over and burn himself. Remember that hot objects, especially curling irons, tend to remain dangerously hot for quite some time after being unplugged. And never leave a young child alone in the bathroom, especially the tub, while you answer the phone. Again, the best childproofing of all is supervision.
Consumer Products Safety Commission, Childproofing Your Home.
American College of Emergency Physicians, How to Childproof Your Home.
Centers for Disease Control. Health, United States, 2005.
National Fire Protection Association. Smoke Alarms. November 2005.
Childrens Hospital Boston. Falls.