To assess child-safety risks, learn, listen to your gut – and get down on the floor
For The Associated Press
Erin Street’s 15-month-old, Nate, finds fresh opportunities for exploration – and injury – each day.
“Before, you could just put him in one area and he’d pretty much stay there,” says Street, of Hoover, Ala. “Suddenly, he was running across the house … he’s just in the thick of getting into everything.”
So, like many parents, she began buying childproofing products. “We started with a couple of gates and closing up electrical outlets,” she says, “but there’s so much more out there.”
Some she has resisted buying. “Nothing is going to keep kids 100 percent safe, unless you put them in a bubble. And that’s not how I want my child to grow up,” she says. “It’s a tough line, because of course you want to wrap them in your arms and never let them down.”
In an age when professional services will come to your home and childproof the stairs, fireplace, cabinets, bookcases and other possible risks, many parents are struggling to decide where to draw that line.
The market for childproofing products has grown considerably, according to Amy Miles, project manager for One Step Ahead, which offers the basics (drawer locks, doorknob covers, bed rails, etc.) and some less obvious items, such as knee pads and helmets for fledgling walkers (Miles says they’re “actually a huge, huge seller”).
Today’s parents are “really into protecting their child,” she says. “People generally start out with what they remember or what they’ve seen in someone’s house – the toilet lock for the lid, a gate or two. Then, it’s really funny because if you track that customer, you see them coming back with, ‘I need that, and I need that, too…’.”
“It’s the old philosophy of ‘you turn your head for a minute and something happens’,” Miles says.
Emily Heagle, a Minneapolis mother of a 19-month-old girl, concurs: “If you go to Babies-R-Us or a place like that, there’s a child safety section and it’s huge … And suddenly every other parent is saying, ‘Do you have the foam helmet?’ Then it becomes this word-of-mouth thing, where you’re the bad parent if you don’t have the foam helmet.”
So how can safety-conscious parents cut through the hype to decide what’s really necessary?
• Get educated. Talk with parents you trust, and your pediatrician.
“Experienced parents love to pass on good safety tips,” says Alan Korn, director of public policy for the advocacy group Safe Kids USA. And “pediatricians are now making it part of their responsibility to educate.”
• Learn about safety risks in your home by literally exploring it from a child’s perspective.
“Getting down on the floor, looking around, you’ll get a better idea of all the hazards,” says Dr. Joan Shook, medical director of the emergency department at Texas Children’s Hospital.
After analyzing their home in Washington, D.C., Lynne Emanuel and her husband, Mike, decided their marble coffee table could be a risk to their son, Savas, now 19 months. “So we got one of those pads that go around it,” she says. They also moved several plants.
• Trust your instincts.
“Parents face tremendous pressure to act responsibly through purchasing the latest safety product. They are continually incited to fear the worst. As a result they are discouraged from relying on their common sense and intuition,” said Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent in England and author of “Paranoid Parenting” (Chicago Review Press, 2002).
“The use of safety products can send out the signal that rather than being a safe haven, your home is a threatening environment.”
Shook advises against hiring an expert. “I’ve never seen any data that suggest that professional childproofing decreases the likelihood of an accidental problem over just appropriately vigilant home childproofing by somebody who is looking out for the child,” she says.
• Reassess frequently.
“Childproofing needs to be looked at as sort of a continuous process,” says Shook. “What you need to do for somebody who’s crawling is pretty different than for someone who’s walking, and then somebody who is walking well and is able to get into things.”
Once children begin walking, that’s when cabinet locks or a stove guard might be necessary.
“Once they can go outside, do you have a swimming pool in your neighborhood? Do you have a busy street close to your home?” Shook asks. If so, a door chain might be a good investment.
And as older children graduate to toys with smaller pieces, a baby gate or playpen may be needed to keep smaller siblings from swallowing something.
• Supervision is vital.
“Over the past 15 years we have seen the injury death rate drop by 45 percent, which is really a miraculous improvement,” Korn says. Shook has seen a similar drop in injury-related emergency room visits by children.
But both attribute that improvement mainly to increased knowledge and supervision by parents, rather than to specific childproofing products. Even the most high-tech item can’t replace a watchful adult.
• Consider the value of a few scrapes and bruises.
Excessive childproofing “immunizes children from engaging with everyday experience. Children need to learn to deal with the unexpected so that they can acquire the skill of managing risks,” says Furedi.
“Pain and misfortune are part of every child’s experience,” he says, and can teach important lessons “about limits and … an understanding of the fact that their activity could have negative outcomes.”