Got kids visiting over the holidays? 10 childproofing safety tips

There are some simple things that can minimize potential hazards - particularly if your house hasn't been childproofed - if you're expecting children to visit over the holidays.

'Making a list, and checking it twice': Important safety checks to do before the holidays

Amidst the chaos of the holidays, and particularly if your house hasn't been 'childproofed' but you're expecting children to visit, there are some simple things that can minimize potential hazards. (Reuters)

The halls are decked, the stockings hung with care, but how safe is your festive home for little ones who may drop in over the holiday season? If your house hasn't been childproofed recently and you're expecting children to visit, there are some simple things that can minimize potential hazards.

The chance of injury for children over the holidays increases with the hustle and bustle of the season. Even if you have childproofed your home in the past, changes in the household routine can create potential risks.

"Keep in mind that your normal daily routine is disturbed at this time," says Heather Hudson from the Ontario Poison Centre. "And that's often the time when children are most at risk for poisoning." 

Accidents over the holidays are often related to common household items, she says.

"Things have been moved out of their usual storage place or somebody has come into the home to stay. Like, Grandma's coming for a visit and has brought something into the house that isn't normally there. That can also cause problems," says Hudson.

If it's been a while since you've safety-proofed your home, or if you're travelling this holiday season, here are some new safety alerts and some age-old safety precautions to keep in mind.

When you're making a list and checking it twice, be sure to add these 10 safety checks.

1. Laundry detergent pods

Children sometimes mistake laundry detergent pods for candy. (Joelene Huber)
Pre-measured, single-use laundry detergent packets are convenient, but they're candy-coloured and candy-sized, and young children can mistake them for treats. Between 2012 and 2014 alone there were more than 17,000 calls to poison centres in the U.S. for children under six exposed to laundry pods, according to one study.

The packets can cause a burst of detergent to be swallowed if punctured or dissolved in the mouth. Symptoms reported include vomiting, nausea, breathing difficulties, choking, coughing, stomach pain, decreased consciousness and even death.

Health Canada recommends that laundry detergent pods be kept locked away, and out of reach and sight of children.

2. TV tip-overs 

Flat screen TVs that are not securely anchored can be pulled over, particularly by toddlers grabbing onto things as they learn to walk, posing the risk of injury. (Joelene Huber)
Television tip-overs have been on the rise over the past decade, especially with the increasing size of flat-screen televisions that are often not anchored to the wall or adequately secured. TV tip-overs are among the top five "hidden home hazards" listed by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Toddlers between one and three years are most at risk.

Injuries can be severe, such as head and neck fractures and brain injuries, many of which require neurosurgical intervention and they can also be fatal, according to a review this year by Toronto's St. Michael's Hospital neurosurgeon Dr. Michael Cusimano.

TV tip-overs are preventable, and Cusimano's team recommends the following prevention measures:

  • Teach children about the hazard.
  • Restrict play in rooms where there is a TV.
  • TVs should not be placed on dressers.
  • TVs should be securely anchored to the ground or wall using brackets or some other apparatus.
  • Do not place toys, TV remote controls or other items desirable to children on top of TVs.

3. Cosmetics

The bathroom is one of the most dangerous places for young children owing to storage of medications and cleaning supplies. "Many mouthwashes, facial toners, perfumes and hairsprays contain alcohol — and often in quite high concentrations," says Hudson.

Before young children visit this holiday, look through your bathroom(s) to ensure nothing dangerous could be accessible to a child.

4. Hot water burns

Children often play with the taps in the bath, and can easily scald themselves if a home's hot water system is set at too high a temperature. (Joelene Huber)
Baby and children's skin can burn very easily with exposure to overly hot water. Scalding can occur when children turn on hot water and are burned by water temperatures that adults can handle.

The Canadian Pediatric Society recommends setting your hot water heater at a maximum of 49 C or 120 F to avoid scalding injuries. 

5. Magnets 

Extremely strong magnets, known as rare-earth magnets, can be found in some children's toys, building sets, science kits, jewelry and clothing accessories. Children under three often put objects in their mouths and sometimes swallow them.

If more than one magnet is swallowed, it can cause serious injury to a child since the walls of the intestine and/or stomach can be pinched, causing blockages and even tears due to the strong attraction of two magnets. Magnet injuries can be fatal.

Young children are not the only ones at risk. Teens have also swallowed tiny, powerful magnets while using them with faux tongue or oral piercings.

If a magnet is swallowed, or suspected to have been swallowed, seek immediate medical care.

6. Alcohol ingestion by children

Accidental alcohol ingestion is a common reason for a call to the poison centre over the holidays.

Hudson says accidental alcohol ingestion by children is always a concern, but even more around the holidays. A common scenario for a poison centre call, she says is "the family will have a party and leave the cleanup until the next day. [A child] wakes up early and starts drinking from the half-empty glasses" that have been left scattered around.

"We recommend that at the very least, empty the glasses down the sink before going to bed," says Hudson. 

7. Mop pails and ice chests

Many adults don't realize that children can drown in as little as an inch of water, and an unattended pail of water can pose a serious risk to a curious toddler. (Joelene Huber)
For children under five, drowning is the second most common cause of death. But not all drowning cases happen in pools. Children can drown in as little as one inch of water.

Toddlers are particularly vulnerable to drowning in buckets or pails because their bodies are top-heavy and they can easily topple if they lean into a bucket or pail and not be able to pull themselves out.

Don't leave mop pails or work buckets out around the home with water in them. The Canadian Pediatric Society advises people to empty water from pails, buckets, ice chests and bathtubs immediately after use.

8. Cleaning supplies

Children getting into cleaning supplies is a major source of calls to poison control centres. This photo of a dishwasher pod and a Halloween chocolate bar shows how similar they can look to a child and how easily it can be mistaken as candy. (Joelene Huber)
Warnings about the dangers of children getting into cleaning supplies are nothing new, yet according to Hudson, they are the second most common call to the poison centre around the holidays. As hosts clean before guests arrive, they sometimes get distracted and may leave a cleaning solution out, Hudson says.

Ensure cleaning supplies are stored out of sight and out of reach of children and be sure to put them away right after use, particularly if cleaning amidst the activity and chaos of the holidays.  

9. Medications

Across all of the days of the year, Hudson says, the No. 1 reason for a call to the poison control centre, across all age groups, is for medication ingestion.

Medications containing acetaminophen are by far the most common substance. If you are a visitor, leaving medications in places such as your suitcase, purse, coat pocket, bathroom, dresser or bedside table leaves them dangerously accessible to children. This includes over-the-counter medications, prescription medications and vitamins.

Ensure all medications and vitamins are locked, out of sight and out of reach of children. Hosts should provide holiday visitors with a locked tackle box or a safe place to store medications (even medications that need to be refrigerated) over the holidays that is out of sight and reach of children.

10. Choking risks and the toilet paper roll rule-of-thumb

Any small items left around the house can be a choking hazard for children. As a rule of thumb, if something fits through a standard toilet tissue roll then it's a potential choking hazard. (Joelene Huber)
There are many household items that could pose a choking risk, especially for children aged three and under who are more likely to put things in their mouths. Anything that can pass through a toilet paper roll could be a choking risk to a young child. This includes things like toothpaste lids, coins, paper clips, peanuts, hard candy and small toy pieces.

Don't leave anything out that could fit through a toilet paper roll if small children will be in your home over the holidays.

Dr. Joelene Huber is a staff physician at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, an assistant professor in the University of Toronto faculty of medicine and a Fellow in Global Journalism at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto.


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