With his 2-year-old upstairs taking a nap, Tim Anderson* seized the chance to do some yard work. A few moments later, he was bewildered to find the toddler lying on the lawn, crying inconsolably. That’s odd, he thought: How did he get downstairs so fast? Then, to his horror, he noticed a window screen lying beside his son. Alone in his room, the enterprising tot had managed to push out the screen on the window beside his bed. After that, he had tumbled onto the roof and fallen two stories to the lawn below.
Thankfully, the story has a happy ending: The little boy had only a minor concussion and made a complete recovery. But his parents still relive the terror of that day. “We were so scared,” his father recalls. “We kept asking ourselves, why did we put the bed beside the window? We felt like the worst, the stupidest parents on the planet.”
What the Andersons realized is how hazardous an ordinary house can be for a family with children. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, approximately 2.5 million children are injured or killed each year in accidents around the house. Fortunately, many of these accidents can be prevented with a little advance planning and simple devices that you can find at almost any drugstore and discount retailer.
Making a house safe for babies and toddlers to explore is a big job, but you don’t have to do it all at once. Experts recommend that parents conduct periodic safety surveys of the home. That includes literally crawling around on the floor to see the world from your child’s view. (Some doctors note, however, that if you do that every six months for three years, you may have a greater risk of hurting your back than keeping your child from harm.) Here’s a room-by-room guide for what to do from the very beginning.
Even before your baby is born, you can make sure the room she’ll be staying in is safe. At first, babies will spend a lot of their time in the crib or on the changing table, so here are some suggestions for choosing and placing the furniture:
- Look for a crib that has a Juvenile Product Manufacturer’s Association sticker. This means the crib has met the organization’s safety standards.
- Don’t buy a crib with splinters, cracks, missing parts or peeling paint.
- Do not choose a crib with elevated corner posts (more than 1/16 of an inch) or decorative cutouts in the headboard.
- Ensure that crib slats are no more than 2 and 3/8 inches apart.
- Make sure all screws, bolts, and other hardware are securely installed to prevent the crib from collapsing.
- Be sure the crib mattress fits snugly. You should be able to slide just one finger between the mattress and the side rails and headboard.
- Don’t put pillows, soft bedding, electric blankets, heating pads, or stuffed animals in the crib.
- Do not place the crib or changing table near a window, and make sure blind cords are out of reach.
- Always use the safety belt when your baby is on the changing table, and don’t turn your back for one second.
- Place a slip-free rug under the changing table and crib to provide some protection in case of a fall.
- Electric space heaters should be at least three feet away from the crib, bedding, and draperies to prevent fire.
- It’s best to buy a crib new, since safety standards have changed over the years. If you do buy a used crib, make sure you know what make and model it is so you can check with the Consumer Product Safety Commission on whether it has been recalled. You may check on their Web site by searching under “cribs” at http://www.cpsc.gov/cgi-bin/prod.aspx, or by calling their recall hotline at 1-800-638-2772.
- Make sure night lights don’t touch fabric like curtains or bedspreads.
When your baby can pull up or stand up on her own:
- Remove bumpers, pillows, stuffed animals, and other toys from the crib so your baby can’t use these to climb on.
- Take down mobiles and hanging crib toys.
- Remove strings on crib toys and pacifiers if they are more than 7 inches long, so they do not become a strangling hazard.
- Move the crib bottom holding the mattress to its lowest position.
- Make sure drapery and blind cords are out of baby’s reach by tying them or securing them with a safety device that rolls them up out of reach.
From hot stoves to sharp knives with appliance cords in between, the kitchen is arguably the most dangerous room in the house — and the one that you probably spend a lot of time in. Here’s how to stay safe:
- Don’t hold your baby while you’re cooking. One solution is to put your baby in a playpen when you’re cooking to keep her from getting underfoot when you are moving hot pots and pans.
- Put your baby down while drinking hot coffee or tea.
- Avoid warming baby bottles in the microwave — the milk or formula may heat unevenly and scald your baby.
When your baby can walk or crawl:
- Use baby gates or a playpen to limit the areas of the room your child has access to.
- Store all cleaning supplies out of reach, preferably in a locked cabinet that’s high off the ground.
- Store alcohol in a locked cabinet.
- Secure knives and other sharp utensils or heavy pots in an out-of-reach or locked cupboard.
- Place knob protectors on stove knobs if they are on the front of the stove.
- When cooking, turn pot handles toward the back or side of the stove where they are less likely to hang off the counter and be pulled down by little hands. If possible, use only the back burners.
- Keep chairs and step stools away from counters and stove.
- Keep electrical appliances unplugged and out of reach and use outlet covers to keep baby from sticking her fingers into the sockets.
- Make sure appliance cords are wrapped short, so when they are in use children cannot pull coffee makers, toasters, or other electric appliances off counters.
- Avoid using tablecloths or runners that your child could pull down.
- Store the trash can in a locked cabinet, or use one with a child-resistant lid.
- Put safety latches on cabinets so that baby can’t get into unwanted places, and keep the dishwasher detergent and other household poisons in a high cabinet out of reach of little hands — toddlers eventually figure out how to open safety latches.
Everyone has heard the warning that a child can drown in as little as one inch of water, so the bathroom is another danger zone. In fact, drowning is the second-leading cause of death for children age 1 to 14, and children under age 1 most often drown in bathtubs, buckets, or toilets. Scalds and burns are also common injuries in the bathroom. Here’s how to keep your baby safe:
- Set your water heater no higher than 120 degrees F.
- Turn on cold water first, and turn it off last when filling the tub (or running water in the sink).
- Fill the tub with just enough water to cover baby’s legs.
- Always test bathwater with your elbow before putting baby in the tub.
- Never, ever leave your baby unattended in the bath, even for a few seconds.
- Unplug electric appliances when not in use, and store them away from the tub, sink, and toilet.
- Make sure you have ground fault interrupters on electrical outlets near sinks and bathtubs.
When your baby can walk or crawl:
- Install a safety latch on your toilet. For added safety, ask other family members to lower the toilet seat and keep the bathroom door closed at all times.
- Install a nonskid mat or decals in the bathtub.
- Put a nonskid rug on the floor beside the tub.
- Although they don’t guarantee your child’s safety, you should use child-resistant caps on all prescription and over-the-counter medications, vitamins (especially if they contain iron), and herbal treatments. Store medications and supplements in their original containers, and keep them in a locked cupboard.
- Keep mouthwash, toothpaste, and cosmetics out of reach.
- Store any sharp utensils like scissors, razors, tweezers, etc. in a locked cabinet.
Of course, there are some precautions that you should take in every room of your house. The Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends using the following safety devices:
- Safety latches and locks for cabinets and drawers. (Caution: Babies and toddlers often figure out how to open safety latches, so latches may only slow them down.)
- Safety gates to prevent falls and keep kids out of dangerous areas.
- Door knobs and door locks.
- Anti-scald devices for faucets and showerheads (in addition to setting your water heater to 120 F or lower).
- Smoke detectors for every bedroom and hallway of your home and on each level.
- Window guards and safety netting to prevent falls.
- Corner and edge bumpers to soften sharp edges on furniture and fireplaces.
- Outlet covers and outlet plates to keep curious fingers out of electric sockets.
- Carbon monoxide detectors outside of every bedroom in the house.
- Window cord safety devices to prevent strangulation.
- Door stops and door holders to keep small fingers from getting pinched in interior doors.
- Cordless phone so you never have to leave your child unattended to answer the phone.
In addition, you should:
- Keep button batteries and items that contain them far out of children’s reach. These batteries — found in TV remote controls, toys, cameras, thermometers, and even musical greeting cards — can cause disabling and even fatal burns to the esophagus in children who swallow them.
- Get rid of any trunks that automatically lock — children can suffocate if they get trapped inside them.
- Install safety hinges on toy boxes. Better yet, these days most toy stores carry child-safe toy boxes that prevent young children from catching their fingers under the lid.
- Position entertainment equipment so children cannot pull down televisions, stereos, VCRs, or DVD players — babies and toddlers have been killed when flat-screen or heavy TVs have fallen on them.
- Secure furniture (like bookshelves, entertainment centers, and bureaus) to the wall so that they don’t topple over onto small children.
- Move furniture that a child can stand on away from windows.
- Place houseplants out of children’s reach. (Learn the names of all your plants in case a child eats one of them — better yet, get rid of any that could be poisonous if eaten.)
- Keep foods and other objects that are choking hazards away from children age three and younger. These include popcorn, whole grapes, hot dogs, batteries, coins, buttons, small magnets and hard candies.
Although childproofing is a daunting and never-ending task, how much or how little you do is entirely up to you. If you don’t feel up to the task, consider hiring a professional to evaluate your house — and sell you the childproofing products he or she recommends. Most medium-sized towns have child-proofing services. But remember, proper supervision is the best safety measure of all.
* Tim Anderson is a pseudonym.
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