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Safe for the Holidays

Sure, the real meaning of Christmas is family, togetherness and peace on earth—if you’re an adult.

For the under-12 crowd, if there’s one thing we learned from “A Christmas Story’s” Ralphie and his epic yearning for a B.B. gun, it’s that one dream toy can make or break Christmas.

Unfortunately, that happy glow is not all that can break. If toys aren’t chosen well, the potential to spend the rest of Christmas vacation in a cast is all too real. The holiday season can be a dangerous one for children, but Bevin Maynard, supervisor of the Child Advocacy Center at St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital, says that with reasonable precautions, everyone can have fun and stay safe.

About 3 billion toys are sold yearly in the United States, and about half of this number is bought during the year-end holidays. Unfortunately, on average, emergency rooms also see an average of 256,000 kids around this time for toy-related injuries, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Many of these injuries are minor, says Maynard, but unfortunately there are fatalities, especially with children under 3 who choke on small parts.

“Parents of toddlers: Don’t purchase toys with small parts,” Maynard entreats. “If it can fit inside of a toilet paper roll, don’t purchase it for your small child. And be sure to keep toys purchased for older children up and away from their younger siblings.”

Many parents look at the age on a toy, and assume that it refers to a learning level, and that their 2-year-old is “smart enough” to play with a toy that states “5 and older” on the box. What they don’t understand is that the age is a safety measure, not a learning measure, says Maynard. In other words, even if your child can understand and manipulate that “5-and-older” toy as a 3-year-old, he or she could still choke on a small piece from it.

Age-appropriateness is also a concern with video games. “Follow those age guidelines,” says Maynard. “They are there for a reason. If you have a 16-year-old and an 8-year-old, be sure to set guidelines with teen on where and when the game can be played.

The holiday gifts that cause the most number of visits to the Steinbrenner Children’s Emergency Room at St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital are definitely the wheeled toys, says Maynard—scooters (especially motorized scooters), RipStiks, Hoverboards and bicycles. Kids aren’t going to stop wanting these, however, so employ some basic safety guidelines and enforce a “follow the house rules or don’t ride” policy. Make sure you are with your young child when they are riding. Make sure a helmet and any other safety equipment such as knee pads are part of the gift. And make sure that in the case of a bicycle, you don’t buy a size up for kids to grow into and forget to adjust the seat. Bike fit is important; a child’s feet should be able to reach the ground when sitting on the seat. Helmets should also fit snugly and not wobble around when shaking their head.

Toys that heat up too fast—Easy Bake ovens and electric crayon makers—pose another hazard. Parents should use these with kids over 8, supervise play and make sure they are unplugged and put away after use.

Another common misperception is that if a toy is on the market, it must have been safety-approved at some point by the authorities. Not so, says Maynard. It is the manufacturer’s own responsibility to self-test a toy for safety. As long as the manufacturer deems it is safe, it can be sold. As long as there are no safety complaints, it can continue to be sold. “That’s why it’s important to report unsafe toys to www.saferproducts.gov,” says Maynard. “That’s how most recalls happen.”

Safekids.org suggests the following guidelines when buying toys by age group:

  • For those 2 years and under, look for toys that encourage physical activity, imaginative play, hand manipulation and early reading. Active manipulation is better than battery-operated push button toys.
  • For kids 3 to 5 years, look for things that encourage balance—tricycles, scooters or bikes (with helmets); building and creating toys; art projects that encourage fine motor skills; books, educational games, musical instruments and outdoor toys. Safekids recommends limiting electronics and DVDs for this age group.
  • For kids 6 to 12 years, recommended toys include arts and crafts, construction and brain-building toys and sports equipment. The organization recommends not purchasing a motorized scooter for your child, because using these without helmets and protective gear have led to fatalities.

General Holiday Safety

A beautifully trimmed tree is often the focal point of many family gatherings, but it can also pose threats. Allow the littlest kids to decorate with “their” ornaments first, and then put those easily-shattered glass globes or ornaments with sharp metal hooks out of reach towards the top of the tree, Maynard says.

If you buy a real tree rather than an artificial one, be sure to secure it tightly to the tree stand to prevent tip overs.  It’s also important to water them regularly because dry needles can pose a fire hazard. Maynard suggests setting a reminder on your phone or computer. Other potential fire hazards this time of year are candles, lighters and matches. Always keep lighters and matches out of reach and never leave candles lit overnight. And be careful of novelty lighters that may resemble toys and prove irresistible to little explorers.

Nothing says Christmas like strings of pretty twinkling lights, but Maynard advises caution here also.

“Don’t use frayed wires,” she says. “Don’t tape them up. Use surge protectors. Don’t overload sockets.”

Also popular during the holiday—especially if our little Floridians visit family up north—are evergreen boughs and berries. But beware the berries that may look like a tasty nibble for young children or curious pets, says Maynard. Some poisonous varieties include mistletoe berries, holly berries and Jerusalem cherries. If these are swallowed, Maynard recommends immediately calling the Poison Control Hotline at 1-800-222-1222.

Another area of potential holiday danger is travel. Millions take to the roads or air, and with the heightened sense of urgency and excitement, the situation is rife for carelessness. “Plan,” exhorts Maynard. You want to keep things accessible so that you do not have to unbuckle a seatbelt while barreling down the highway at 75 mph; at the same time, you don’t want a lot of items scattered around the inside of the car because in the unfortunate case of a collision, they could become dangerous projectiles. “Pull over if you or your child needs something,” says Maynard, and get them what they need from where it has been safely and securely stowed.

Florida also does not have a booster seat law like some other states do, says Maynard. While children 5 and under must be in government-approved restraints, children 6 and up are allowed to only be in a seatbelt. However, Maynard says it is safest for those 4 feet and 9 inches tall and below to still use a booster seat. “Seat belts are made to fit adults – not kids – and can cause spinal or internal injuries during a crash if they don’t fit correctly,” notes Maynard. “A booster seat simply boosts the child up so that he fits in the adult seat belt properly.”

Cooking is another focus of the holidays, and while the occasion may be a great one for little kids to learn how to bake grandma’s special cookies, adult cooks should be careful to use back burners and keep pot handles turned away from the front.

Ironically, it turns out that one of the most at-risk groups during Christmas may not be kids, but their fathers. “We typically see several dads in the ER each year that have fallen from ladders or roofs while putting up holiday decorations,” says Maynard.

For more information on keeping kids safe this holiday season, or anytime of the year, visit StJosephsChildrens.org.

Travel Safety Checklist

Heading out on a road trip to grandma and grandpa’s for the holidays? Pack the Rudolph DVD and presents, but don’t forget to make sure the most important things in the car—the kiddos—are safe for the ride. Safekids.org has a handy checklist that serves as a reminder.

  • Make sure your car seat is appropriate for your child’s age, weight and height by checking the label. Also check the label to make sure the seat is still safe and hasn’t “expired” past its safety date.
  • Keep all children in the back seat until they are 13.
    • Keep babies and toddlers under 2 in a rear-facing car seat until they outgrow them; then move them to a forward-facing car seat. Make sure to attach the top tether after you tighten and lock the seat belt or lower anchors.
  • Inch Test. Once your car seat is installed, give it a good shake at the base. A properly installed seat will not move more than an inch.
  • Pinch Test. Make sure the harness is tightly buckled and coming from the correct slots (check car seat manual). Now, with the chest clip placed at armpit level, pinch the strap at your child’s shoulder. If you are unable to pinch any excess webbing, you’re good to go.

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