For parents everywhere, keeping kids safe is priority #1. You want your children to enjoy new adventures, explore the world around them and grow with each experience, but you also want to protect them in every way you can. It’s a tricky balance sometimes, and a big challenge that requires alertness, non-stop education and careful guidance through the pitfalls of life.
Most children’s injuries in Australia are completely preventable, and being aware of a few simple safety rules can make all the difference. No parent in history has ever been able to make the world 100% safe for their kids (and to be honest, such a world would be pretty boring), but here are some pointers that can help.
Around the Home
Your home is meant to be a secure, cosy haven for children, but in reality there are all sorts of unexpected dangers lurking in and around your house that can bring kids to grief. Knowing the risks is the first step in developing a ‘strategy of protection’. Of course, it all has to start with diligent supervision. It only takes a few seconds for a toddler to fall in a pool, run out into the street or find some matches to play with. We live in a world where it’s very easy to get distracted, but distractions must never interfere with knowing where your children are and what they’re doing.
The steps you take to make your home ‘kid-safe’ will depend on their age(s), and you’ll need to make adjustments along the way as they grow. Don’t hesitate to involve older children in helping look after their younger siblings’ safety in circumstances where it’s appropriate – this not only instils a sense of responsibility, but can take a little of the load off your shoulders as well.
Keeping kids safe from fire
It’s important to teach children that fire is not a toy. Don’t leave children at home alone (especially in a locked house), and keep matches and lighters out of their reach. Many children are naturally fascinated by fire, and may find ingenious ways to hide their ‘playing with matches’ habit from parents – so be alert. Don’t leave it to their schoolteacher to teach them the fire safety rules of ‘stop, drop and roll’ if on fire and ‘get down and go, go, go’ if they’re in a smoke-filled room. Know where your household extinguishers are (and how to use them) and make sure you sit down and discuss a home evacuation plan with your kids when they’re old enough. Have a fire evacuation practice session with the whole family.
There are all sorts of very good reasons to quit smoking, and keeping your kids safe is one of them. It’s estimated that smoking is the direct cause of at least 45001 fires each year in Australia (and that’s a very conservative estimate – the actual number is likely to be much higher).
Smoke alarms are an absolute must in every home. If a fire occurs and you don’t have smoke alarms, you are four times more likely to die in the fire, 26% more likely to sustain serious injuries and 57% more likely to suffer property damage and loss . Smoke alarms are inexpensive, easy to fit and worth their weight in gold; they can save your child’s life as well as your own.
Smoke alarms don’t help against carbon monoxide gas, however, so you should also install carbon monoxide alarms (these days, you can buy special single alarms that perform both functions). Carbon monoxide is a colourless, odourless and tasteless gas that can kill and is especially dangerous in enclosed, poorly ventilated places. Many things can cause a build-up of carbon monoxide gas: car fumes in a garage, a blocked or soot-filled chimney, a faulty furnace or gas-powered fireplace, portable heaters and other fuel-dependent appliances. Be aware of the deadly danger of carbon monoxide poisoning – this silent killer must be taken seriously.
When you have younger children at home, installing child-proof locks on cabinets is crucial – but it’s doubly important in the kitchen. Store your knives, cheese graters, scissors and other sharp objects in a child-proof drawer or at the back of your kitchen bench, up high and out of reach.
Make sure cords for toasters, blenders, tea kettles and other heavy items are out of reach of grasping young hands. Unplug any appliance you’re not using and turn off the wall switches. Use placemats (or nothing at all) instead of a tablecloth to prevent toddlers from having a ‘pulling disaster’. When you have saucepans on the stove, turn them so the handles face the back of the stove, out of reach.
Windows and balconies
Toddlers love to explore, and window ledges offer both an opportunity to climb and the promise of an interesting new view. A flimsy screen isn’t much of a barrier to falling, so ensure windows are either locked or latched so they can’t be opened to a gap wider than 10cm. Window security grilles are also a worthwhile investment. Chairs, beds and other furniture should be far enough away from windows so they don’t provide a convenient climbing platform for young children to gain access.
If your home has one or more balconies, these can pose a danger to children. Keep entry doors to balconies closed and locked when not in use and install a safety guard across the balcony entrance. Anything that might be used for climbing (large pot plants, easily dragged plastic chairs, etc.) should be removed from the area around your balcony. Guardrails should be at least a metre high, without any convenient footholds to climb on. Guardrails consisting of vertical bars or a flat, solid wall work best at deterring young climbers.
The leading external cause of death for children under the age of 5 is drowning. In NSW alone in 2013, 9 children under the age of 5 drowned, and an additional 64 were admitted to hospital for near-drowning. Kids in this age group have the highest mortality rate of any age group, with roughly 60% of all drowning deaths happening in swimming pools2.
If left unsupervised, a small child can drown in as little as 5cm of water. Backyard creeks, spas, bathtubs, garden ponds and even nappy buckets can be a danger.
The leading external cause of death for children under the age of 5 is drowning. In NSW alone in 2013, 9 children under the age of 5 drowned, and an additional 64 were admitted to hospital for near-drowning. Kids in this age group have the highest mortality rate of any age group, with roughly 60% of all drowning deaths happening in swimming pools2
A flooded street after heavy rain is no place for a child of any age to be playing – each year lives are lost when kids (big and small) play in dangerous flood waters.
Vigilant adult supervision is the key to child safety around water. Don’t let older children be in charge of keeping an eye on younger swimmers around the pool, spa or bath. A designated adult should be present to look after swimming children at all times, with no exceptions. Pools should be properly fenced, and the gate immediately closed after anyone enters or exits the pool area. Anything that a child might use to climb over a pool fence (outdoor furniture, barbecue, pot plant, etc.) should be moved well away from the area. Trim trees that have any branches near the pool fence.
Have an approved CPR chart posted in the pool area, and make sure you learn infant and child Cardio-Pulmonary Resuscitation so you can act without hesitation in an emergency. You can obtain a CPR chart from your local council, pool shop and from the St. John Ambulance Service, Red Cross or Royal Life Saving Society.
Swimming lessons should be started for children as soon as is practical so they develop the skills and confidence they need to be safer around aquatic environments. And remember that it’s not just toddlers falling off a pool edge that are in danger – an unsupervised teenager can hit their head or suffer a blackout just as easily. Children can drown at any age, and deep water isn’t always necessary.
Preventing strangulation and suffocation
A number of objects and situations around the house pose a suffocation/strangulation risk for an unsupervised child – especially babies and small toddlers. Here are some useful pointers:
- Learn about the dangers of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and the safest sleeping positions for your baby. There are basic precautions you can take to reduce the risks.
- Don’t attach a dummy to your child with a cord, ribbon or chain – this could lead to strangulation. Also, don’t use anything to keep a dummy in your baby’s mouth. There is a danger of suffocation if your baby can’t spit it out when he/she wants to.
- If you’re bottle-feeding your baby and need to suddenly answer the door or phone, take the bottle with you – don’t leave it propped up and left in the newborn’s mouth. The baby needs to be able to spit the bottle out if they are unable to breathe.
- Be careful where you allow your baby to fall asleep. A beanbag, waterbed, couch, sheepskin rug or other soft, cushiony place might enable your child to roll into an unsafe sleeping position where they can’t breathe properly.
- When your baby is in the pram, keep constant track of blankets and other coverings to ensure your child’s face is never covered. It doesn’t take much movement on a baby’s part to quickly shift a covering, so be vigilant.
- Don’t buy baby/toddler clothing with built-in cords around the collar area. Before the child goes to bed, remove their bib or any clothing with a hood.
- A baby’s cot should have a mattress that fits firmly so the child’s head can’t get stuck between the sides of the cot and the mattress. Make sure the cot is well away from any window blinds (and their cords). Keep stuffed toys, piles of clothing and similar items out of cots (and prams) to prevent the possibility of accidental suffocation.
- Children love to climb into things. Your toybox should have air holes and a detachable lid in case children climb (or fall) in. Put child-proof locks on freezers and stress to older children that enclosed places like freezers are out of bounds for ‘hide-and-seek’ games.
- Plastic bags are a serious suffocation danger for children. Keep plastic bags out of reach of small children, dispose of plastic wrapping immediately and tie plastic bags in knots before disposing of them (loose plastic bags can easily be retrieved from a wastebasket). Store plastic bags out of reach of curious toddlers.
- Foil balloons are safer than rubber ones, which pop more easily and can be inhaled. Keep balloon ribbons under 30cm – longer lengths might wrap around a child’s neck.
Falls are the most common cause of accidents in every child age group3. We don’t often realise how fast our children are acquiring new skills and how dangerous a fall (inside or outside the house) can be. As children grow, they can suddenly reach areas they couldn’t before, so it’s important to make adjustments to your home environment to accommodate this.
The higher the fall, the bigger the danger, so make sure children under 5 can’t access heights over a metre and a half, and that older children can’t access heights over 2 metres.
The higher the fall, the bigger the danger, so make sure children under 5 can’t access heights over a metre and a half, and that older children can’t access heights over 2 metres. Just as bark mulch is safer in a playground than concrete, a carpeted floor is safer to fall on than a hard floor in your home.
Just as bark mulch is safer in a playground than concrete, a carpeted floor is safer to fall on than a hard floor in your home.
Sturdy furniture that your children can’t knock over or pull down on top of themselves is safest. In areas where children commonly play, remove any furniture with sharp corners (or pad the corners). Put stickers on glass sliding doors at kids’ head level so they don’t try to walk through a closed glass door (it happens more often than you think). Glass-top coffee tables and children can be a dangerous combination. Use safety glass on windows and sliding glass doors so they won’t shatter into small pieces on impact.
Make sure all children’s toys are put away at the end of the day, so no one trips over them at night when heading to the toilet. If the tiles in your bathroom or laundry are slippery, use non-skid mats in these areas. If you spill any liquid, wipe it up immediately. Teach children not to stand up in the bathtub – it’s too easy to fall and hit their head on the edge. Baths are notoriously slippery environments for both children and adults.
Once your baby starts crawling, you’ll need safety gates for the stairs. When you need to get past the gate yourself, open it – don’t step over it. Aside from the fact that you might trip, this practice sets a poor example for older children.
General household safety tips
There are many simple ways to make your house a safer environment for kids. Keep chemicals, cleaning products, aerosols, razors, alcohol, medicines, poisons and other dangerous items out of reach or in a child-proof cabinet. Lower the temperature on your hot water system, and consider installing safety taps that small children can’t turn on. Put lids on nappy buckets and place them where toddlers can’t fall into them.
Folding chairs and tables should lock in place so they can’t collapse by accident. Select furniture (and children’s clothing) made of fire-retardant materials. Avoid small, loose rugs or mats that don’t have non-skid surfaces underneath.
Have a list of emergency numbers near your phone so you don’t have to hunt for them when time is of the essence. These should include police, ambulance, poison information centre, fire department, family doctor, local children’s hospital, local council and a 24-hour chemist.
Get a proper home first aid kit and familiarise yourself with how to use what’s in it. Take a first aid course to brush up on your skills, especially those related to CPR, head injuries and knowing what to do in case of choking. First aid knowledge (and the ability to put it into practice calmly and automatically) can save your child’s life.
In the car
For children under the age of 14, car accidents are the most common cause of death and injury in this country. 80 children die and around 3000 are seriously injured in car accidents each year – and most at risk are children in the 7-12 age bracket, who have outgrown boosters or child restraints while riding in the car4.
It’s important for parents to do the research and fully understand the type of restraint that’s best for their child’s age and size. Guidelines by Kidsafe and Neuroscience Research Australia recommend that infants be kept in rear-facing restraints as long as possible, and older children who are using adult seats or booster seats should use lap-sash seatbelts only (with a strap across the lap and another across the chest).
For children under the age of 14, car accidents are the most common cause of death and injury in this country. 80 children die and around 3000 are seriously injured in car accidents each year – and most at risk are children in the 7-12 age bracket, who have outgrown boosters or child restraints while riding in the car4
Child restraints need to be installed correctly and checked on a regular basis.
Older kids should stay in booster seats until they have outgrown them. Though laws are different from state to state, children are normally legally required to stay in a booster seat until the age of 7. However, a smaller-statured child may need to use a booster seat longer. If a child is too small for an adult car seat, the back of their knees don’t reach the seat edge and they tend to slump down too much. This means their back isn’t right up against the seat back and the lap belt (which should be positioned snugly across their hip area, touching their thighs) rides up and fits across their stomach, which is unsafe. Some children may need a booster seat all the way up to age 12, depending on their size.