Keeping Your Toddler Safe

Your toddler is smarter, faster, and even more curious than she was as a baby. Do you know how to keep her safe?

When Amy Murphy stepped into the bathroom for a quick shower, her 2-year-old daughter, Kharis, was happily watching her favorite video. When she walked back into the living room ten minutes later, Kharis was gone -- and the front door was open, despite the fact that it had been secured with a dead bolt.

Luckily, Kharis had only wandered a few feet from the house before her mother found her. "Just thinking about what could have happened makes me feel sick. What if she had wandered into the street?" asks Murphy, who lives in Dallas.

I can relate to Murphy's panic. I experienced an even more terrifying incident when my daughter, Taylor, was 2. While we were visiting relatives, she opened a sliding glass door (a skill I didn't know she possessed), walked outside, and fell into a hot tub. It was sheer luck that she didn't drown -- my sister-in-law, only moments later, decided to go for a dip and was able to rescue her.

Why toddlers are accident-prone

Every year, thousands of 2-year-olds are hurt or killed in their homes. In fact, injuries are the leading cause of death in kids older than 12 months. Two-year-olds are among those most at risk because "they're mobile and eager to explore their environment, but they can't anticipate the consequences of their actions," says Andrea Carlson Gielen, deputy director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy, at Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health. Unlike 1-year-olds, who can be distracted, "most 2-year-olds will do whatever it takes to get what they want," notes Mariann Manno, M.D., director of pediatric emergency medicine at University of Massachusetts Memorial Healthcare, in Worcester. Their intense curiosity, combined with new physical skills, makes the world an exciting -- if often dangerous -- place.

You no doubt safety-proofed when your baby first crawled and then again when she walked. But now you must go beyond installing safety gates, latches, and outlet covers. "Most injuries aren't just a matter of bad luck," notes Gielen. "Children get hurt because hazards in the home weren't eliminated."

Safety experts recommend that you get down to your child's level and look at the world from his point of view. Low drawers left open can turn into a staircase; bookcases and china cabinets look like great climbing toys; and knives and glass dishes are not as out of reach as you may have thought. You'll also want to consider your child's special interests. If she's fascinated with lotions and cosmetics, for example, you'll need to take extra precautions to keep those items out of toddler reach in the bathroom. Gielen cautions, however, that you should never be complacent, thinking that you can predict what sorts of dangers your child will be drawn to. To stay one step ahead of your 2-year-old, here are four rules of toddler safety you must follow:

1. Don't assume that just because your child couldn't do it yesterday, he can't do it today. Lori Moore, of Kelowna, British Columbia, figured that if items she wanted to keep from her child were stored on a high shelf in a cabinet that was latched shut, he wouldn't be able to get at them. She was wrong. Soon after he turned 2, Dakota got into some forbidden -- though, fortunately, harmless -- sweets by dragging a chair to the pantry and disengaging the safety latch (which proved to be a cinch). "Once he learned that trick, he was constantly dragging chairs around to get to places that had previously been inaccessible," says Moore. "I realized that we not only had to be careful about where chairs were placed but that it was dangerous to underestimate his capabilities. He had to be watched all the time."

2. Never leave a child alone in the kitchen or bathroom.These rooms can be very dangerous because they contain knives, heavy appliances, toxic cleaning supplies, medicines, and razors. Remember that in the kitchen, the hazards multiply if you're cooking. For example, Dr. Manno recently treated a child in the emergency room who had suffered second-degree burns from steaming spaghetti sauce. The sauce had been bubbling in a slow cooker; when the child pulled its cord, which was dangling from the counter, the contents spilled all over him.

3. Be especially cautious when you have company or are visiting other people's homes. "People can be distracted when they have guests, so supervision may be lax," observes Dr. Manno. During the chaos of holiday dinners or family get-togethers, assign someone to watch your 2-year-old at all times.

I can attest to the wisdom of this advice: Taylor's near-drowning incident occurred because I was busy cooking and talking with my relatives. I didn't even know she had gone outside until I looked out the kitchen window and saw my sister-in-law pulling Taylor (by her hair) out of the hot tub.

Playdates also require an especially watchful eye, as 2-year-olds are apt to pool their talents and get into more trouble than they could individually. Last December, for example, while the moms were in the kitchen chatting, Alexis Evanich's daughter, Grace, teamed up with her 2-year-old playmate to knock down a completely decorated Christmas tree. "They were trying to get the candy canes hanging at the top," recalls Evanich, who lives in Cincinnati. "I don't think Grace would have tried such a feat on her own -- but she was more than happy to go along with the plan."

4. Realize that even the most thorough childproofing cannot replace adult supervision. "The most important 'safety product' for toddlers is supervision," Moore concludes. "Childproofing your home is definitely helpful, but nothing replaces a watchful eye. Accidents can happen in a matter of seconds. But the more closely children are supervised, the less likely they are to be seriously injured."

Copyright © 1999 Holly Robinson. Reprinted with permission from the June 1999 issue of Parents magazine.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. 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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