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Childproofing the holidays: How to keep your kids—and your ornaments—safe

Keep your kids and those heirloom ornaments safe.

Childproofing the holidays: How to keep your kids—and your ornaments—safe

Christmas is a busy time of year. Add to that the need to keep your tiny elves from destroying your decorations and risking their own health, and it can get pretty stressful. “There are a lot of household accidents at Christmas—people’s homes are filled with all sorts of decor that isn’t normally there,” says Sage Singleton, a safety expert with Safewise.


Dr. LeAnn Kridelbaugh, president and Chief Medical Officer of Children's Health Pediatric Group in Dallas, Texas, adds “A recent study from the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) estimates that more than 15,000 injuries occur during November and December because of unsafe holiday decorations.  That’s more than 250 injuries a day that require an emergency room visit.”

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So how do you protect your precious children while simultaneously protecting your heirloom Christmas decor handed down over the generations? Luckily we have some tips.

Ornaments, tinsel + decorations

Depending on the location and material, ornaments can appear to be great toys to curious little minds. Just make sure that the ones toward the bottom of the tree (if you choose to decorate it) clearly say “shatterproof” on the label. Glass, metal with sharp objects, or ornaments with tiny parts should be placed at the top of the tree.

“Small ornaments, light bulbs, and other tiny decorations pose a choking hazard if swallowed by small children. Keep small, breakable decorations out of reach.” Kridelbaugh recommends, “The best option is to store delicate ornaments and decorations until your children are older.”

Kridelbaugh also points out that, “Another area to look out for is decorations that can irritate skin, eyes and lungs. Artificial snow can have chemicals that can be harmful when sprayed and inhaled, so follow instructions on the can carefully.”

If you use tinsel, make sure your child can’t get tangled up in it. In fact, it may be wise to skip tinsel and garlands for a year or two until your kids are older, or restrict them to the top of the tree.

If you’re going to place ornaments low, opt for ribbon hangers rather than metal hooks, which can injure children and pets who put things in their mouths.

Be especially cautious of any length of string on your tree that is 12” or longer.

Toys

And of course, be sure that the gifts you’re giving meet safety standards as well, given the age of your children.

"When choosing a toy, always check the intended age range listed on the packaging and follow the manufacturer’s guidelines. Keep toys meant for older kids away from infants and younger kids. Buy dolls or stuffed animals with eyes that are sewn on, rather than plastic. Plastic eyes tend to fall off and are a choking hazard for younger children,” says Kridelbaugh. Additionally, “Batteries are made with chemicals that can be deadly,” so Kridelbaugh recommends checking that toys and watches have batteries that are locked in place.

And always, if you have any doubt about the safety of a toy you purchased, it can be checked for recalls at www.recalls.gov.

Candles

If you’re going to use candles, place them up high. Never put any candle near a Christmas tree, stockings, or decorations, or leave them unattended. Wax burners will reduce the fire risk, and many manufacturers make faux candles if you are interested in the look without the actual flame.

Wrapping paper, ribbons and snow

"All the trimmings for gifts are beautiful, but they are a triple threat for small children. Prevent possible suffocation, choking and fire hazards by gathering all wrappings and packaging material as gifts are unwrapped,” recommends Kridelbaugh.

Stockings

Weighted stocking holders for mantle pieces are dangerous during the holidays. “Every year, without fail, children are seriously injured by tugging on a Christmas stocking and bringing the entire heavy stocking holder down on top of their heads,” says Singleton.

She suggests that until your children are older, hanging stockings on hooks that are securely nailed in place to the mantel or even a wall is a safer alternative to weighted stocking holders.

Lights

Make sure your Christmas lights are shatterproof and the all plugs are out of a child’s reach. Putting a fake weighted present box in front of the outlet is a great way to shield your child from playing with a plug.

Alternatively, you could follow the lead of Dustin Christensen, co-founder of The Toddle and father of twin girls. He switches his electrical socket safety plugs out for a box-style cover that lets him use the outlet while still keeping them away from his twins.

"Make sure that no child under 4 can pull the string and potentially topple your tree,” instructs Kridelbaugh. She adds that, “Few people are aware that strings of lights may be coated in a plastic that contains lead, so be sure to wash your hands after handling lights.”

Poinsettias and other Christmas plants

Mistletoe can be extremely poisonous to humans, and although it’s usually placed high up, it’s not advisable to have it in a house with small children. “I’d refrain from using mistletoe in any home with a child under the age of 4,” says Singleton.

For the same reason, Singleton also cautions against the use of holly berries as they are also poisonous to humans, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers. Kridelbaugh adds amaryllis to this list.

Poinsettias can make some pets sick but are rarely poisonous to humans if ingested. If your child ate quite a few leaves however, it might upset their stomach.

Medication

This is an area that is all too often forgotten. “If you're hosting guests, remember to put medications well out of the reach of children. Blood pressure medications, blood thinners and prescription opioids are especially dangerous for kids,” states Kridelbaugh.

The Christmas tree

Ah, the Christmas tree—an endless source of fascination for little ones. Those bright, shiny lights and sparkling balls can be irresistible to curious elves.

"If you’ve purchased a natural tree, make sure it's in a sturdy stand that's rated for the tree's size, and place it where foot traffic won't knock it over. Additionally, replenish the water regularly to keep your tree from drying out,” recommends Kridelbaugh. She adds, “When it comes to artificial trees, remember that trees made in China, or trees that are older than nine years, may also contain lead or give off dangerous levels of lead dust as they deteriorate. This is a good time to toss out your old tree and check labels for lead content as you purchase a new one [made of polyethylene (PE) instead].”

There are a few options for safeguarding your tree against damage and (worse yet) tipping over.

  • Decorate the top half. If you have a big tree, this works well. Just decorate the top half, lights and all, and keep all ornaments out of your child’s’ reach. Or, place the bigger, unbreakable ornaments on the bottom half of the tree where, if taken, they won’t harm your child or break your heart.
  • Fence it in. Many parents buy a 360 degree circular fence to put around their entire tree. This is great if you have a lot of space. Another option is to put the tree in the corner and put a fence from wall to wall.
  • Faux present wall. Christi with Love from the Oven offers a how-to for making your own wall out of large boxes. Just fill the boxes with something heavy like books, and wrap them like pretty Christmas presents. Your baby will be blocked from the tree and presents without compromising your decor.
  • Go tiny. You may decide that a standard-sized Christmas tree is too much bother this year. A great alternative is a tiny tree on top of a table. Still festive, but out of reach of little hands.
  • Add weight or anchor it. Be sure to add weight to the base of your tree. “Every year children get hurt by pulling the Christmas tree down on themselves,” says Singleton. She suggests using sandbags or rice bags to weigh down the base of artificial trees. “Real trees are usually heavier, but if you can weight those down too or even anchor them to the wall with a strap, it will help ensure your child’s safety,” she says.

Be safe, have fun.

Having a tour of the house can also go a long way in preventing holiday accidents. “We go around the house and explain to our toddlers what the ‘new’ lights and decorations are so that they understand they're not to be played with, and it's a great chance for them to learn new words and holiday songs too,” says Christensen.

Christmas time is a magical time of year and one that delights babies and children alike. With a few simple tricks and cautious use, your Christmas decorations can provide a lot of enjoyment without endangering your children.

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