OK, kids, the holidays can be a joyous time, but they also can be a trip-to-the-emergency-room-filled time.
Kids are around things they aren’t normally around. They’re traveling to different places that maybe aren’t child-proofed. And, let’s face it, with so much to do and so many people around, parents and caregivers can get distracted.
Last week, we talked about choking hazards and how to prevent those, as well as what to do when someone is choking.
This week, let’s focus on the other holiday hazards, many of which could happen all year long.
Dr. Shyam Sivasankar, pediatric emergency medicine physician at St. David's Children's Hospital, says one of the big things with the holidays and decorations is candles.
"Make sure that kids aren’t unattended, especially when they are toddlers," he says.
For candles, a good rule is to put them somewhere high, not on a coffee table or kitchen table where kids can easily reach them. Also, candles should never be near or on trees, whether real or artificial.
If you’re buying a real tree, make sure to keep it watered throughout the holiday season. If you’re buying an artificial one, make sure the label tells you that it is fire-rated.
When it comes to other plant decorations, the danger with children is not the poinsettias (worry about pets with those); it’s the berries of plants that kids might think look like candy. Sivasankar worries about plants like holly, mistletoe and Jerusalem cherry.
When it comes to stringing up the lights, make sure that your wires are in good condition and nothing is frayed that kids could grab onto and get shocked.
Think about layering your tree, with delicate or sharp things like glass ornaments and lights at the top where young kids can’t reach them. Use the lower half for the kid-friendly ornaments. Also, anything that looks like it is food, such as plastic candy canes, should go where young kids can’t reach.
Make sure that your tree is secure in its base and has a supportive base to make it less likely for a child to knock down, but know that just like those videos of cats taking the whole tree down, your young child has abilities beyond what you might think.
The holidays are also a time when families have a lot of packaging from purchases all over the house. Some of those could be a suffocation or choking hazard. Think about the foam peanuts or plastic bags that electronics or toys come in. Dispose of those quickly or put them up high or in secured cabinets away from young hands.
When it comes to buying toys, read the labels. Each toy has an age range on it for a reason. If you have an older child and a younger child, make it clear to the older child that the new toy could be dangerous to their younger sibling. Be especially careful with any toy that has button batteries or magnets because, if swallowed, those could be toxic. Also look for anything that has parts that are smaller than your child’s throat, which for kids younger than 3 is slightly wider than the width of two fingers or a quarter.
You can also check if toys are safe by going to recalls.gov and looking them up.
Kids are going to be doing a lot of crafts this season. Make sure those materials are nontoxic. They will say "ASTM D-4236" on the packaging if they are safe. If you have paints that are more than a year old, throw them out.
Make sure to do crafts in a well-ventilated room, and make sure no one is eating the supplies.
If you’re using something like the hot glue gun, that needs adult supervision. (Quite frankly, some adults might need someone to supervise them with those things!)
Kids also get new tricycles, new bikes, new scooters and new skateboards at this time of year. Those all need to be given with a helmet, even for the adults.
"It’s not necessarily that kids are going so fast or doing things," he says. "It’s the cars. You never know what’s going to come around the corner."
A bike or scooter injury without a helmet could mean a long-lasting brain injury.
The holidays also mean travel to other people’s homes and even other cities or states. Don’t forget to bring the car seat with you if you are flying or riding in another person’s car.
Also, know that the home you’re visiting might not be as child-proofed as yours. That means you need to be on the lookout for things like poisons, including laundry and dishwashing pods or anything else that looks like candy or juice.
Think also about things like access to pools. It might not be swim season, but if you’re visiting a house with a pool, is there a fence around it? If not, how can you block it off from little wanderers?
"Know what’s around you," Sivasankar says.
The holidays and wintertime also might mean using the fireplace. Has it been cleaned recently? Is the flue open? Is the battery in the carbon monoxide detector new? Is there a grate or a glass shield that is sturdy and can’t be knocked over surrounding the fireplace?
Put fireplace tools out of reach because, after all, you could poke your eye out on those pokers.
When you’re cooking for the holidays, it’s easy to become distracted. Use all those safety tips you know, such as use the back burners of the stove first. Put pan handles facing away from the front of the stove. Don’t leave the oven open for kids to walk up and touch. Don’t leave out sharp things like knives.
If you want kids to cook with you, invest in safety knives and teach good knife-safety techniques, such as keeping fingers tucked in. Always supervise any cooking activities in the kitchen, which means not turning away to do the next step while your child finishes the current step. Don’t be in a hurry to get the cooking done. Slow down and enjoy the togetherness of the activity.
This is also the time of year when we want to make sure we’re using good food safety techniques, such as not using the same knife and cutting board you used for meat for vegetables and fruit, and using a meat thermometer to make sure meat reaches the ideal (food-borne illness killing) temperature. It’s 165 degrees for poultry, 145 degrees for red meats and 160 for ground meats.
Also, don’t leave out leftovers. They should be kept warm or cold depending on the food and put away within two hours after they are done cooking.
Once in the refrigerator, you should eat them within four days, or within four months if they are in the freezer.
The holidays also happen when cold and flu season is in full force. We’re also exposed to a lot more people, and people from different areas of the country who are visiting. Wash your hands regularly, and get your flu shot if you haven’t already.
The rest of the things Sivasankar sees coming into his hospital during this time of year are the typical bumps and scrapes, such as kids running into tables, falling down stairs, falling off sofas and beds, as well as infections.
One of the most important things about keeping kids safe during your holiday gatherings is assigning someone to be watching kids at all time, Sivasankar says. That might mean you assign someone else if you’re doing the cooking or preparing an activity. Whoever is in charge can’t be on their phone or distracted. Their focus is on the kids and the kids alone.