How to Avoid the Biggest Holiday Hazards for Kids

Food, fires, freeways and falls pose the biggest threats to young children.

By Carrie Arnold

Parents often work hard to give their children a joyous holiday filled with family togetherness. But holidays have their perils: Thousands of children will visit the emergency room this month.

Kids can be reckless and unpredictable (“He put WHAT in his mouth? She climbed up WHERE?”), but the good news is that adults can take a few simple steps to help stave off disaster — and respond sensibly if something does go wrong.

We spoke to several safety experts who said that although there’s no way to eliminate all traces of danger, there are some things you can do to help keep your December drama-free, without interfering with your — or anyone else’s — holiday fun.

“Most safety precautions only take a few minutes, and then you can relax and enjoy your holiday,” said Joseph Martyak, director of communications at the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

The safety commission released a variety of tips to help keep young children safe over the holidays, and while some of these tips may be basic, Martyak said, the safety benefits can be great.

Tammy Franks, senior program manager at the National Safety Council, also suggested paying attention to the four Fs: food, fires, freeways and falls. Those categories contain the most common hazards, she said.

Play it safe and avoid toy trouble

Americans are expected to spend an average of $1,048 on gifts this year, according to the National Retail Federation’s holiday sales predictions. Parents often look for bargains and popular items, but spend less time thinking about safety. Besides asking yourself whether the present will delight the child on your list, Adam Garber, a consumer watchdog at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group in Philadelphia, recommended checking to make sure the toy is safe and age-appropriate. In 2018, the safety commission reported that 226,100 children were treated in the E.R. because of toy-related injuries. The good news, according to the research group’s annual Trouble in Toyland report, is that toys are now safer than ever before, with recalls steadily decreasing each year.

But there are also more toys on the market to evaluate, Garber said.

“There’s an explosion of products, and anyone can market them on sites like Amazon or eBay,” Garber said. “You have to find a needle in an ever-larger haystack.”

Online shopping can add to the challenge: Not all retailers prominently display a product’s safety information, such as choking hazards and age limitations, Garber said.

Even the most vigilant parent — like Garber himself — can make a mistake. When he found some fun bath toys, he added them to his wish list for his 17-month-old son’s Hanukkah presents before checking the safety information. Only when he looked more closely did he notice that the toy was labeled a choking hazard and shouldn’t have been marketed to toddlers.

Because a product’s age range may not be displayed prominently online, he recommended scrolling down and looking at the fine print about the toy’s specifications to ensure that it’s age-appropriate for the recipient. Zooming in to look at photos can help identify any hazardous small parts. Reviews from other parents and buyers can also help identify any red flags, Garber said.

Not sure if a toy is too small for your toddler? Try dropping it down a toilet paper tube. If it goes through, it’s too small, Garber said.

Don’t forget the helmet

Although bikes, scooters and skateboards are perennially popular presents, Martyak said that these gifts aren’t complete without helmets and other safety gear.

“Accidents are often not the fault of the toy, but how it’s used,” he said. And a child adjusting to a new bike may be especially prone to falls.

No one wants to tell excited children they can’t ride their new bike until they get a helmet, Martyak said, which is even more reason to include it as part of the gift. All the extras blowing your budget? Consider asking friends or relatives to give the safety equipment, he advised.

Watch out for Big Brother

It’s not just physical danger from gifts that parents should be thinking about, said Ashley Boyd, vice president of advocacy for the Mozilla Foundation, a global nonprofit dedicated to a safe and open internet. In its third annual *Privacy Not Included guide, the foundation compiled a list of 76 user-reviewed gifts rated on their levels of digital safety.

If a product uses Wi-Fi or connects to the internet, Boyd said to assume it’s collecting data on product usage. Although three-quarters of the featured items met Mozilla’s basic security criteria, Boyd said that both the proliferation of such items and the increasing amounts of data they collect meant that those numbers didn’t describe the full picture.

“We’re encouraged, but there’s still a real concern about data privacy,” Boyd said. “I urge all parents to weigh an item’s risks against its benefits.”

Make sure the item has features such as data encryption, password requirements, automatic security updates and accessible privacy policies, Boyd said. Children’s gifts should have the option to switch off data collection, she said, and parents should take advantage of that option.

Be prepared on the road and in the air

About 115.6 million Americans are expected to travel over the holidays — a record, according to the American Automobile Association’s 2019 Holiday Travel Forecast. With so many people hitting the freeways and an estimated nearly 5 percent increase in airline traffic, getting there can be a challenge. Between wintry weather, heavy traffic and crowded airports, even the best plans can fall apart.

Jeanette Casselano, public affairs manager at A.A.A., said to make sure your car has winter tires, a full tank of gas and a recent oil change before you head out. Casselano also recommended packing emergency equipment like blankets, extra food and water, and flashlights.

Long hours and holiday stress can add to fatigue, so Franks of the safety council urged drivers to grab some extra sleep before beginning a drive. The added rest will also help drivers remain calm in the face of the inevitable traffic jams and angry drivers.

Families traveling by air should remember to purchase tickets that allow parents to sit next to their children, which may mean forgoing cheaper seats. And although it’s tempting to check a car seat at the gate, the Federal Aviation Administration recommends that children use an approved child restraint system (check your child’s specific seat to see if it meets F.A.A. criteria). Not only will you avoid damage from luggage handlers, but the seat can also help keep children safe during turbulence, Casselano said.

Pay attention when you’re cooking

Holiday gatherings tend to center on food. And kitchen fires remain the top cause of house fires during the holidays, according to the safety commission. (Holiday decorations, which often include candles, are second on the list of fire causes.) Guests and small children can be distracting, and Martyak recommended not leaving children alone in the kitchen while cooking is happening. If you are struggling to keep an eye on wandering little ones, Martyak suggested encouraging them to help you with meal prep. This can keep them entertained and supervised, he said.

To prevent food-borne illness, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends frequent hand-washing and using separate cutting boards for raw meat, as well as a meat thermometer to ensure that food is thoroughly cooked. After serving food, the agency says to refrigerate or freeze leftovers within two hours and finish them within several days.

[How to avoid food poisoning over the holidays.]

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