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Mall Safety: 5 Strategies to Keep Kids Safe

Child in the mall shopping

You'd never think of letting your child ride in the car without his seat belt fastened, but how about when he's in a shopping cart? You always hold his hand when he crosses the street, but how often do you reach for it when you step onto an escalator at the mall? When it comes to kid-safety hazards, it's easy to get caught up in worrying about the big, obvious threats, such as car accidents, toy recalls, and dangerous playground equipment. And with good reason, since they are responsible for many childhood accidents. But an everyday trip to the mall -- where parents are often distracted and kids are intrigued by elevators, escalators, and elaborate store displays -- poses a surprising number of hazards that can cause severe injuries. We asked experts how you can safely navigate the following four danger zones when you and your kids hit the stores.

Seems like only towering displays, the kind you'd find in warehouse-type stores, would be a threat. But even relatively small displays in malls can be dangerous, as Jennifer Keller, of Mesa, Arizona, learned when she and a friend were shopping for sunglasses. It turned out that the tables of sunglasses were really just wide hollow columns topped with a piece of heavy glass. "My friend's son leaned on one and it flipped," she says. "The glass landed on his foot and he screamed bloody murder." Luckily, he wasn't seriously injured.

Safety strategies:

  • Play it safe -- don't let your child poke around displays and platforms. "Not all stores secure their mannequins and displays," says Denise Dowd, M.D., chief of injury prevention at Children's Mercy Hospitals and Clinics, in Kansas City, Missouri. "That means they can easily topple over."
  • Discourage exploration. Your child may think that crawling underneath a display or clothing rack is tons of fun, but she could accidentally pull the whole thing down on top of her. Don't let her reach for anything on a table above her sight line either -- she might knock over heavy objects or cause the table to tip over.

Little kids are often freaked out by escalators, and they have reason to be: About 2,000 children -- most under the age of 5 -- are injured on escalators each year. Most of those injuries are due to falls; the rest occur when a child's hands, feet, or clothing are trapped in the escalator's moving parts. While some wounds are fairly minor (such as cuts and bruises from falls), entrapment injuries can crush a child's limbs, even requiring amputation.

Safety strategies:

  • Hold your child's hand so you can guide him on and off the escalator and make sure that his fingers don't get stuck in the gaps of the escalator's handrail
  • Tell your child to stand still and face forward. If he sits on the steps, his fingers and feet are closer to the escalator's rotating parts.
  • Got a stroller? Take the elevator instead. "You can only fit two wheels on a step," notes Karen Sheehan, M.D., medical director of the Injury Prevention and Research Center at Children's Memorial Hospital, in Chicago. "So if someone above or below you bumps you, you could easily lose control of the stroller." If you must take the escalator, ask someone to help you pick up the stroller and hold it while you ride.
  • Check your child's clothing. Make sure his shoelaces are tied, and don't let him drag his coat or scarf on the ground. If loose clothing gets caught up in an escalator, he could be pulled down with it. If your child gets stuck, hit the escalator's emergency stop button (it's usually at the top and bottom of the escalator), or yell at someone to do it for you if you aren't near it.

Letting your kid ride in a shopping cart seems like a convenience, not a danger. But shopping cart-related accidents send nearly 21,000 children under age 5 to the emergency room each year, mostly for head and neck injuries, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Part of the problem lies in the cart's unbalanced design. "It's heavy and wide at the handlebar and gets lighter as the basket narrows," says Dr. Sheehan. "If your child stands in the cart or hitches a ride on the side or back, he can easily tip it over."

Safety strategies:

  • Keep your kid out of the basket. Buckle her into the fold-down seat of the cart instead (just make sure the safety belt works). Better yet, choose a cart that seats children in front and low to the ground, if one is available. Some are designed as cars and trucks so that little shoppers will happily stay put. And if your child does happen to fall out of one of these, she's less likely to be seriously injured.
  • Never allow your child to ride on the side or back of the cart. Letting her push it may also lead to accidents.
  • Don't place your baby carrier on top of the cart. The weight of the carrier may make it tip over.
  • Always stay within arm's reach of your child when you go shopping -- it only takes a second for her to fall or a cart to tip while your back is turned.

Nearly 2,000 children are injured by elevators every year, usually when their hands or limbs are crushed in the doors. "Most elevator doors will open if the sensor detects something in the way, but a kid's arm or finger can be so small that it may not register," says Dr. Sheehan.

Safety strategies:

  • Never try to stop the doors from closing with your arm, foot, bag, or stroller. Although most of the elevators at department stores are equipped with safety features and are well maintained, the elevator's photoelectric eye can malfunction, causing the doors to crush whatever is in the way.
  • Mind the gap. Make sure that the elevator is level with the floor before you exit. Your child could trip, or his foot could get stuck in the gap.
  • Stand at the back of the car if possible. Never let your child touch or lean on the elevator doors -- that's where most injuries happen.

The mall is a fascinating place to kids, and they won't think twice about running off to get a better look at anything that catches their eye. Here's how to avoid -- and handle -- store separations.

  • Keep your child occupied. Take along books and small toys to entertain him while you shop. A bored child is more likely to wander off when you're distracted.
  • Give him your cell-phone number. If your child is too young to memorize it, write the digits on a piece of paper and put it in his pocket. This way, anyone who finds him will be able to contact you right away.
  • Have an action plan. Make sure your child knows what to do if he loses you. Tell him to stay where he is and to call your name. If he can't find you, he should alert a store employee (explain how he can identify workers and security guards by their name tags or uniforms). If he's very young, teach him to look for another "mommy" and ask for help.
  • Don't panic. If your child wanders off, alert store personnel and mall security -- they may have procedures in place to help you find him. In addition, go back to the last place you saw him, calling his name as you go.

Originally published in the December 2007 issue of Parents magazine.

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