For Children's Sake, Celebrate With Care

By Louisa Jaggar
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, November 22, 2007

Toddlers and young children often cannot resist the allure of the many shimmering, electrified holiday decorations. How could they? It's important to take extra precautions this time of year so the family doesn't end up sitting in the ER waiting to have a decoration removed from a child's nose or something even more dire. We sought advice from three experts on how to more attentively ensure a safe holiday season for youngsters.

An Emergency Room Doctor

Twenty years of working in emergency medicine has convinced Ellen Dugan, an assistant professor at Georgetown University Hospital, that "children need to be protected, especially during the holidays."

¿ Stabilize the Christmas tree, attaching it securely with rope or wire to the wall or floor. "I have seen numerous children in the ER because the Christmas tree has fallen on them," Dugan said, "sometimes because the cat crawled up the tree and tipped it over, and sometimes because the toddler tries unsuccessfully to climb the tree."

¿ Place wooden or fabric decorations -- those too big to fit in a toddler's mouth -- along the bottom of the tree, and put fragile glass ornaments or those with sharp edges out of reach. Make sure any reachable ornaments have no small pieces that can be broken off and stuffed into the ears, nose or mouth.

¿ Skip the tinsel. Toddlers love its glittery surface and, for some reason, feel compelled to taste it. Tinsel is a "big choker," Dugan said.

¿ Keep electrical cords tucked out of sight.

¿ Don't leave plastic bags around; these present a risk of suffocation any time of year.

¿ In the holiday fray, there's more to trip over. Pick up excess toys, suitcases, bags, etc.

¿ If you have or are hosting small children, safety gates on the stairs can help everyone breathe easier.

A Poison Specialist

"A child cannot splash, spill or swallow a product that they cannot get a hold of," stressed Rose Ann Soloway, a toxicologist with the National Capital Poison Center.

¿ Put all purses, suitcases and backpacks up high and out of sight. More than 35 percent of the toxic substances children accidentally swallow belong to someone other than the immediate family. "I remember the holiday when a family was enjoying dinner; no one noticed the 2-year-old slip out until after the child ate aspirin tablets from the aunt's purse," Soloway said.

¿ If staying at a relative's home, ask that they put away all household cleaners, with particular attention to drain openers, rust removers and other highly caustic substances.

¿ Make sure that lamp oil is not left out. It can look like a tempting beverage to a small child.

¿ Small batteries that fit into cameras or video games are very dangerous when ingested (not to mention stuck up a nose). They should be out of reach of young children.

¿ Holly and mistletoe berries look tasty but are poisonous. Place them far away from little hands and mouths.

¿ After the party, make sure no glasses filled with holiday cheer are left sitting out. Poison control centers receive many calls concerning very sick, very young children who have consumed leftover spiked punch.

¿ If you think a child might have swallowed a poisonous chemical, call the national poison control number (800-222-1222), and a registered nurse or pharmacist will assist you. Let the experts figure out what needs to be done.

A Burn-Unit Nurse

"Scalding is the number one way a child gets burned, and winter means there are many more opportunities for this to happen," said Susan Ziegfeld, a nurse practitioner with the trauma and burn programs at Johns Hopkins Children's Center. Increase your usual vigilance concerning working fire alarms, a working fire extinguisher, flame-retardant pajamas and scalding beverages. Other simple steps:

¿ Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Advent and Christmas Eve candle-lighting ceremonies are especially beautiful, but small children should watch from a safe distance. If your child wants to participate, invest in flameless candles (available at

¿ Keep matches, lighters and candles away from small children.

¿ Do not hold a small child in your arms when drinking a hot beverage or lighting candles.

¿ While cooking the holiday feast, make sure that all the handles of pots and pans are turned in so that a child cannot pull them.

¿ If you use an electric frying pan or other small appliances, make sure the cord is not where a child can grab it. "Kids pull them off counters way too often," Ziegfeld said.

¿ Toddlers should have extra supervision around a gas or wood-burning fireplace. A glass plate or screen in front of the fireplace can become extremely hot, and many toddlers suffer burns by falling against them.

¿ If a child does get burned, flush the skin immediately with cool water. "Remove all clothing that constricts, as this traps the heat," Ziegfeld said, "and do not apply any home remedies to the burned area." If the burn is serious, call 911 or take your child to the nearest burn center immediately. "Burn centers know exactly what to do to minimize any lasting injury."

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