Parents know that when you’ve got kids, you must be vigilant to try to protect them from injury. That’s why we test the temperature of their bathwater, spot them on the monkey bars and insist on seat belts even for a five-minute drive.
“You’ve got to have your head on a swivel,” says Daniel Park, MD, a UNC Health pediatric emergency medicine doctor and father of three. At the same time, “you can’t wrap your kid up in a bubble, and kids need to learn to play. But there are ways to maximize safety.”
Based on Dr. Park’s experience treating children in emergency departments, here are 10 things you can do to keep your child safer.
1. Put your phone in your glove compartment while driving.
Distracted driving is responsible for thousands of deaths in the United States every year. Driving distracted means the driver is taking their focus off the road to do something else—often texting or looking at their phone.
Putting your phone away and minimizing other distractions can help keep your children safe in your car and protect other children as well—about 1 in 5 distracted driving deaths are people outside of cars, walking or biking, including children.
2. Lock up the “button batteries” that go in toys, watches and other items.
Young children tend to put things in their mouths, and coin lithium batteries, often called button batteries, are choking hazards. But that’s just the start of the trouble these can cause: If swallowed, button batteries can get lodged in the esophagus or gastrointestinal tract, leading to necrosis—the death of body tissue—which can be fatal.
At Dr. Park’s house, button batteries and alcohol are both kept locked up, he says. He also recommends parents of young children lock cabinets or drawers containing cleaning supplies, automotive chemicals and drugs of all kinds. Emergency departments have seen an uptick in children who accidentally ingested marijuana edibles, thinking they were regular candy.
3. Cut grapes for your kindergartner.
Parents of toddlers know that certain foods are especially easy for little ones to choke on: grapes, carrots, hot dogs and popcorn, to name a few. But don’t stop cutting these foods into small pieces too early, Dr. Park says. Choking is a major risk up until age 5, and sometimes beyond.
There’s no set age when it’s definitely safe to give a child a full grape—you have to know your own child’s eating habits and skills—but there’s no harm in the small added hassle of cutting them for a bit longer than feels necessary.
4. Insist on a helmet for bike rides and beyond.
About 7 percent of children have experienced symptoms of a concussion or another brain injury. Children can hit their heads falling, playing sports or in car crashes. Making sure they’re wearing helmets any time they ride a bike or scooter is a good way to protect their heads, but don’t forget other activities: ice or roller skating, skiing, horseback riding and riding in a bike trailer behind an adult.
5. Test your carbon monoxide detector.
Every year, more than 100,000 Americans seek emergency medical care for carbon monoxide poisoning, and about 400 people die.
Carbon monoxide is present in fumes produced by furnaces, cars, kerosene heaters and stoves, and by burning charcoal and wood, among other sources. When a space is not ventilated properly and carbon monoxide builds up indoors, people and animals can get sick and die.
“We see an uptick of carbon monoxide poisoning in winter months,” because of faulty furnaces, blocked chimneys and people attempting to heat their home with their oven, Dr. Park says. Carbon monoxide is odorless and can cause vague symptoms such as headache, but “young children can’t tell you their head hurts.”
A good way to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning is to make sure you have a working carbon monoxide detector on each level of your home. For example, if you have a two-story house, you should have one downstairs and one upstairs. Smoke detectors do not detect carbon monoxide, but of course it’s critical to have those working, too, in case of fire.
6. Empty the bathtub as soon as you’re done with it.
Drowning is the leading cause of death for children ages 1 to 4, and the second-leading cause (after car crashes) for children up to age 14. That’s why close supervision and reliable fencing around pools and other bodies of water is so important.
But small children can drown even in very shallow water, Dr. Park says, which is why it’s important never to leave them in the bathtub unattended. Empty the tub right after bath time, in case the child wanders back into the bathroom and falls in.
7. Rid your home of small magnets.
If a magnet is small enough to fit in your child’s mouth, and your child is young enough to put it there, you don’t want it in your house, Dr. Park says. First, magnets are a choking hazard. And if a child does swallow one, or even more than one, there’s a risk they can attach in the intestines and cause bowel obstructions that could require surgery, he says.
Many toys for older children include magnets. If you have older children and children younger than 3 under the same roof, be vigilant about keeping small magnets put away and out of reach.
8. Ask the parents of your child’s friends about guns at home.
In 2020, firearm injuries eclipsed car crashes to become the leading cause of death for children ages 1 to 19. Dr. Park treats children of all ages who are injured, sometimes fatally, by guns: young children playing with loaded guns that weren’t secured, adolescents using guns to hurt themselves or others, and children being wounded in crossfire.
If you own a gun, Dr. Park’s advice is clear: “Get the gun out of your house. If you’re not going to get the gun out of your house, lock it up properly.”
If your child is going to play at a friend’s house and you don’t know whether there are guns in the home, ask the parents. If the answer is yes, ask how they are secured.
9. Supervise your older child’s food preparation.
Every parent relishes the day when a child grows up enough to prepare a few basic meals on their own: mac and cheese or ramen noodles are often self-sufficient favorites. But don’t forget to supervise your growing kid in the kitchen. A recent study found that nearly a third of pediatric scald burns treated in a Chicago emergency department over a 10-year period were because of instant noodles.
10. Make a primary care appointment.
Emergency departments across the country have seen record numbers of patients over the past few years, and pediatric emergency departments are no exception, particularly during the RSV surge in fall 2022, Dr. Park says.
Part of the problem is that many people, including children, don’t have a regular primary care provider who can help them stay well with checkups and vaccinations and treat them when illness strikes. Then people turn to the emergency department, where they tend to show up sicker and treatment is more costly.
“The emergency department is always here for you, but seeing a primary care provider regularly, such as a pediatrician, can help reduce the need for a trip to the emergency department,” Dr. Park says. “With prevention, kids can stay healthier and families can avoid higher bills.”
Have questions about your child’s health? Talk to their pediatrician, or find one near you.