Keep Your Baby Safe

Caring for a little one is such an all-encompassing job that it's easy to miss potential hazards. Here are the biggest childproofing mistakes you may be making -- and how to correct them before it's too late.

Ignoring Crib Dangers

Risk: While we all know that putting an infant to sleep on his stomach increases the risk of SIDS, a number of other baby sleep hazards are not as well known. For example, leaving pillows, comforters, and stuffed animals in the crib, or letting your baby cosleep with a parent or another child increases the risk of suffocation. Using an ill-fitting mattress can also lead to suffocation if your baby becomes wedged between the mattress and the crib frame. And a baby can strangle himself on a crib sheet that's too big for the mattress.

Remedy: Keep soft objects out of the crib. Buy a firm, snug-fitting mattress (you should fit no more than two finger widths between the mattress and the crib side). Don't have your baby sleep with a sibling. And if you cosleep with your baby, move the bed away from the wall and detach the headboard to reduce entrapment dangers, or get a cosleeping crib that rests at the edge of your mattress.

Using an Old Crib

Risk: Hand-me-down cribs and yard-sale finds that are more than ten years old may not meet current safety standards. The biggest design flaws of older models: side slats wide enough to allow a baby's body -- but not her head -- to slip through, which are a strangulation hazard.

Remedy: Make sure side slats are no more than 2 3/8 inches apart and that none are cracked or missing. Also check for loose or broken hardware, missing parts, peeling paint, splinters, and sharp edges. And don't use a crib with corner posts or decorative headboard or footboard cutouts (some current models still have these), all of which could snag a baby's clothing, causing strangulation.

Storing Plastic Bags Where Baby Can Reach

Risk: Plastic bags are the second-leading cause of suffocation among babies, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. The danger is greatest between 3 and 6 months, when an infant is capable of putting a bag over his face but lacks the coordination to remove it. When held in place by static electricity and inhalation, a plastic bag can be fatal in less than 60 seconds.

Remedy: Store all plastic bags out of your baby's reach or in a locked cabinet. Don't use liners in trash cans your baby can access easily, such as those in a bedroom or bathroom. And remove and discard dry-cleaning bags from your clothes before hanging them in the closet.

Installing the Car Seat Improperly

Risk: Car seats reduce the risk of a crash-related fatality among infants by 71 percent -- if they're used correctly. Yet studies find that fewer than one in five is. A big snafu: placing a baby in a forward-facing position.

Remedy: Keep your child's car seat facing the rear until she's 1 year old and weighs at least 20 pounds. "If she's turned 1 but weighs only 18 pounds, don't switch the seat yet," says Angela Mickalide, Ph.D., program director of the National Safe Kids Campaign, in Washington, D.C. Never put a baby in the front seat; even a rear-facing infant can sustain serious injuries if the air bag inflates during a crash. Also make sure the car seat's shoulder straps are snug; you should be able to fit no more than one finger between your child's collarbone and the restraint.

Leaving Baby Alone in the Bathtub

Risk: Tub drownings peak between 6 and 11 months when a baby can sit up on his own and a parent can be fooled into thinking it's safe to turn her back -- just for a moment. Bath rings and seats also lend a false sense of security; babies can still slip or tip over in these devices, so they're no substitute for continuous adult supervision. Toilets and filled buckets present other drowning dangers that new parents overlook. "A baby who leans over to peer inside either of these can topple into the water and get stuck," says Nancy Cowles, executive director of Kids in Danger, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Chicago.

Remedy: Always stay within arm's reach of your baby in the tub. If you need to leave the bathroom even for a few seconds, wrap him in a towel and take him with you. Use as little water as necessary in the tub. Put lid locks on toilets, keep bathroom doors closed, and avoid large buckets, which are especially hazardous to babies and toddlers.

Leaving Your Purse Lying Around

Risk: It's a hard habit to break: You come in the door, you drop your purse on the floor. Your handbag, though, may be filled with sharp objects (such as a nail file), choking hazards (such as paper clips and coins), and poisons (such as medications and some cosmetics).

Remedy: Put your purse on a high shelf or another out-of-reach place as soon as you enter the house. "A key part of babyproofing is simply developing good habits," Cowles says. "That way it's not a hassle -- it's just what you do automatically."

Setting Your Water Heater Too High

Risk: A baby's thin skin makes her especially vulnerable to scalding. Excessively hot water from a faucet can give an infant third-degree burns within seconds.

Remedy: Because your baby (or an older sibling) could accidentally turn the hot spigot on full blast, dial down your water heater. The ideal setting: 120°F -- hot, but not enough to scald.

Placing Your Baby on Furniture

Risk: Once your baby can sit up, you may be tempted to plop him down on a sofa, bed, or countertop. Don't do it. Broken bones from falls off furniture are extremely common between 6 and 12 months.

Remedy: Avoid placing your baby anywhere above floor level unless you're within arm's reach. And when you set him down in an infant-carrier seat, always keep the straps buckled.

Putting Your Baby in a Walker

Risk: More than 6,000 babies hurt their head or suffer other serious injuries each year when they fall down stairs while in baby walkers, according to the National Safe Kids Campaign. What's more, studies indicate that using walkers can temporarily delay normal motor and mental development -- "the opposite of what many parents assume," says Gary Smith, M.D., director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Children's Hospital, in Columbus, Ohio.

Remedy: The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends avoiding these devices completely. Better alternatives: stationary activity centers and plain old tummy time, which encourages your baby to push himself up and crawl.

Forgetting to Lock Cabinets

Risk: Lower cabinets often contain hazardous household materials such as paint, furniture polish, and insecticides. Your child could be poisoned if she swallows these, or her lungs could be damaged from inhaling the fumes.

Remedy: Lock all poisons out of sight and reach of babies. Get a childproof latch to keep kitchen cleaners away from your baby (look for a dual-action model that requires two separate motions to open), and when using products that could harm your child put them away as soon as you're done.

Tethering Baby's Pacifier to His Shirt

Risk: Your baby wants his Binky close at hand and -- for peace of mind -- you may too. But attaching a pacifier to your little one's clothing with a long ribbon (or, worse yet, tying it around his neck) could strangle him.

Remedy: A pacifier clip is a safe alternative, but only if the tether or ribbon is less than seven inches long. Any longer than that and it could wrap around a baby's neck.

Overlooking Food Choking Hazards

Risk: Babies are especially vulnerable to choking because they have small airways and aren't good at chewing. Cherries, grapes, carrots, and hot dogs are among the seemingly harmless baby foods that could be fatal.

Remedy: Cut up grapes and cherries into quarters, and remove seeds and pits. Cook carrots first to soften them before you cut them up. Remove the skin from hot dogs, and cut them into tiny pieces. And make sure all food you give your baby is mashed, pureed, or smaller than bite-size.

Copyright © 2004. Reprinted with permission from the September 2004 issue of Parents magazine.

All content on this Web site, including medical opinion and any other health-related information, is for informational purposes only and should not be considered to be a specific diagnosis or treatment plan for any individual situation. Use of this site and the information contained herein does not create a doctor-patient relationship. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

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