Home is special during the holidays—full of decorations, treats and gifts. Children, of course, are especially delighted by all the festivities.
Parents should enjoy the spirit too, but they also must remember that this time of year can introduce hazards in the home, says UNC Health pediatrician Edward Pickens, MD.
“Nobody likes to think of the holidays as a dangerous time,” he says. “But when you have little children around, you have to make sure you know what is on the floor and within their reach.”
Here are some things to watch out for:
Batteries are choking and poisoning hazards. The flat, round ones about the size of a nickel, lithium coin batteries, are especially dangerous because they can cause serious burns in a child’s esophagus or even death. These are found in string lights, thermostats, key fobs, toys and some ornaments.
Know where batteries are in your home. If they are not secured in their compartments with a screw, put heavy tape over the opening.
“It’s not something we see often,” Dr. Pickens says, “but when it happens, it’s a big problem.”
If you think your child has swallowed a battery, call 911 or the National Battery Ingestion Hotline at (800) 498-8666 immediately. Do not try to get them to vomit. If your child is 12 months or older and able to swallow, give them 2 tablespoons of honey every 10 minutes on the way to the emergency department.
Batteries inserted in the ear or nose also can burn a child and should be removed as soon as possible, Dr. Pickens says.
Hearing aid batteries can be choking and poisoning hazards too. Make sure anyone living in or visiting your home keeps hearing aid batteries out of reach of children.
When disposing of batteries, wrap them in tape to make them harder to swallow. Never dispose of them in a trash can or recycling bin that is easy for a child to reach.
Children are often fascinated with magnets, but they can be harmful if swallowed.
“Swallowing magnets can lead to intestinal damage, especially if multiple magnets are involved,” Dr. Pickens says. “They can pinch the intestines and cut off blood supply. It can be very harmful.”
Often, magnets are sold as toys, sculptures or stress relievers for older children and adults, but in the hands of babies, toddlers and preschoolers, they can be deadly. Surgery is often required to remove them.
Real and artificial plants can create serious gastrointestinal risks for children. Some plants, such as holly berries, mistletoe berries and Jerusalem cherries, may look like edible fruit to a child. However, they can cause upset stomachs and other gastric pain.
Poinsettias are a popular holiday plant, and despite common belief, they’re not deadly if eaten. But they can cause stomach upset and sometimes a rash.
No matter the plant, if a child eats a plant that is not normally considered food, call Poison Control at (800) 222-1222. “When in doubt, assume it’s poisonous,” Dr. Pickens says.
Artificial plants also can be choking hazards, he says, and again, fake berries can look edible to children.
4. Christmas trees, menorahs and candles
Fires and burns are a threat year-round, but the holidays bring added hazards.
Keep live Christmas trees well-watered to avoid them getting too dry, and keep all trees and greenery away from heat sources and fireplaces. If you are using an artificial tree, make sure it is made of nonflammable materials, Dr. Pickens says. Ditch the old lights and lead tinsel from Grandma’s attic in favor of modern materials.
Candles are an important part of many religious and cultural celebrations in the winter, including Hanukkah, Christmas and Kwanzaa. But remember to use them safely. Always have them in secure holders, and at least 12 inches away from anything that might burn. Don’t use them in bedrooms, and always blow them out when you leave a room. Make sure children can’t reach lit candles, lighters or matches.
5. Bows, ribbons and light strings
Children can get tangled in ribbons, bows, tags, strings of lights, extension cords, garland, strings on toys and other items.
“The list of things that children can get tangled up in goes on and on,” Dr. Pickens says.
Anything wrapped around the neck can strangle a child. Decorations with strings and cords also can be tripping hazards if they are not properly secured.
6. Cleaning supplies
If you’re hosting for the holidays, you probably dust the furniture, disinfect the bathrooms and mop the floors before guests come over. Just like when you’re cleaning at any time of year, it’s important to keep chemicals out of reach of children. Liquid and beads in air fresheners can also be toxic if swallowed.
7. Holiday foods and drinks
Watch young children around bowls of nuts, hard candy, pretzels, party mixes and other festive foods during the holidays, as they can be choking hazards. If you’re hosting other people’s children in your home, ask about food allergies in advance so you can avoid any problematic foods.
If you’re serving alcohol, make sure children can’t access it. Ask guests to keep their beverages close and dump any abandoned drinks. Little ones won’t know that the festive red martini or mixed drink with soda isn’t safe to try.
8. Other people’s stuff and other people’s homes
If you’re hosting for the holidays, restrict access to places that might contain medicines, cough drops or anything else that might be toxic or pose a choking hazard to a child.
“If you’re having a party, make sure you put away coats, purses and other possessions your guests bring,” Dr. Pickens says. “Maybe put them in a room with a childproof door.”
If you’re visiting a relative’s or friend’s home with your own small child, keep a close eye on them. You can’t control other environments, but you can watch your child.
“It’s important to be vigilant when you have small children in the house, especially around the holidays,” Dr. Pickens says. “They are excited, and decorations can have a lot of hidden dangers. You want to enjoy this time of year, and not spend it in the emergency room or hospital.”
If you have questions about your child’s safety, talk to their pediatrician or find one near you.