If you have kids, you want to keep them safe. But you also know that the little ones have a surprising knack for turning innocent play into very risky situations.
This is especially true for children between the ages of 9 months and 4 years. “That’s a very high-risk period,” says David Schwebel, PhD. He’s the director of the Youth Safety Lab at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He’s also a researcher who knows firsthand that parents often overlook the danger zones in their own homes.
In one of Schwebel’s studies, he asked parents of toddlers to spot the hazards he’d set up in bedrooms. On average, they identified fewer than half.
The problem might stem from a lack of parental imagination. It’s hard to predict what your child will tug, climb or stick in his or her mouth. “Kids want to explore the world,” says Schwebel. “They want to understand and learn. So your risks come from when they grab and touch and taste things that could be dangerous.”
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So how can you make your home childproof? First, address the obvious things: Install padded protectors on sharp corners, covers on exposed electrical outlets, and locks on cabinets near ground level. Then move on to the often-overlooked modifications below.
1. Anchor furniture to the walls
Parents have a hard time imagining how toddlers could topple a heavy dresser or bookcase. But it happens. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission collects data on these types of injuries. On average, falling furniture sends 12,500 children to the emergency room each year.
“They’re not necessarily pushing these things over,” says Colleen Driscoll. She’s the executive director for the International Association for Child Safety Inc., a nonprofit child-safety group. “They’re usually interacting with the piece.”
Typically, that means they’re climbing it or trying to pull something down from the top. “You might have a chest of 5 drawers, and if they open them to gain access to something on top of the furniture, those drawers become little ladders,” she says.
To lower the risk of a serious accident, Driscoll recommends attaching all furniture to walls. If you’re unsure how to install a wall anchor or secure a tricky item such as a TV, visit AnchorIt.gov, she says. The site has good tutorials for new parents.
2. Install baby gates at the bottom of the stairs
Parents are generally pretty good about putting gates at the tops of stairs. From the second floor, it’s easy to imagine your tot tumbling down. What parents often fail to consider is the risk from the ground floor, says Driscoll. “Kids can quickly crawl up steps,” she says. And when kids can go up, they can fall down.
The solution, says Driscoll, is a set of baby gates. You need one at the top of the stairs, but also at the bottom. And go with hardware-mounted gates, the kind that screw into walls, she says. The gates that lock into place with pressure can collapse if the child leans against them.
(Suggested reading: 3 itchy conditions you can catch from your kids.)
3. Install cordless window blinds
Surprisingly, the cords on your window blinds are another commonly overlooked risk, says Driscoll. “That’s kind of a real big one that people don’t think about,” she says. “And it can be very serious.”
Between 1990 and 2015, nearly 17,000 children visited the emergency room with window blinds–related injuries. This is according to a study published in the journal Pediatrics. In most cases, the children were struck after they tugged the cord and released the blinds, which fell on top of them. But they also often wound up with the loose cords wrapped around their necks.
Cord injuries are even riskier from high places, such as ones a child might find from climbing on a couch, says Driscoll. To solve the problem, some parents install little cleats alongside the window. They use them to wrap the cord up out of the child’s reach. But Driscoll doesn’t recommend these. Wrapping and unwrapping a cord is a hassle, so even the best-meaning parents can get sloppy. “Instead of taking the time to wind it up tightly, they just kind of loop it up there,” she says. “So it’s not really used properly.”
The best solution, she says, is to install cordless blinds throughout your home. They eliminate the cord risk, and they can’t be released fast enough to bonk a kid on the head.
4. Hide the electrical cords
Even parents who use plug covers on the electrical outlets often overlook the loose cords, says Driscoll.
One risk is that children can pull them out of the wall and then access an open electrical socket. For that, Driscoll recommends outlet box covers that attach over the plugs. These are great for items such as lamps that need to stay plugged in at ground level.
But the other risk from loose cables is that your child can use them to pull down objects such as coffee machines or blow dryers from a shelf or countertop.
While it’s hard to eliminate cords entirely, Driscoll recommends making sure they’re wrapped tightly and stored out of your child’s reach, especially in areas such as the kitchen or bathroom. And when you’re not using the appliance, consider storing it in a cupboard.
Finally, says Driscoll, do a sweep around your child’s crib. A good rule of thumb is to maintain a cable-free buffer that wraps 3 feet around it. “Children do have the ability to reach probably farther than most people will anticipate,” says Driscoll.
A baby monitor with motion detection can also be a useful tool. It doesn’t replace other safety measures, but it can help you recognize when your child has woken from a nap and is getting mischievous.
5. Fence your pool
You might not be surprised to find pools on the list of main hazards. But this one deserves special attention. Next to birth defects, drowning is the top cause of death for children ages 1 to 4 in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
So don’t risk it. Build a fence all the way around the pool. One study found that compared to pools wrapped with fencing on 3 sides, those that were fully enclosed were 83% less likely to result in a drowning. The study was conducted by researchers at the University of Washington.
But keep in mind that children can also drown in as little as 1 inch of water, according to the Mayo Clinic. So even if you’re using a kiddie pool, keep a vigilant eye on your kids as soon as you start filling it up, says Schwebel. “Supervision means actually watching,” he says. “Not reading Facebook on your phone and glancing off, but actually watching the kids.” And be sure to dump the pool once playtime is over, he says.
This, he says, gets at the biggest childproofing device of them all: you. “Ultimately, your supervision — your playing, your interacting — is also going to keep them safe,” says Schwebel. “And you can slowly teach them what is safe and what isn’t.”
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Overview of childhood injuries: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Parents underestimate risks to children in homes:Accident Analysis & Prevention (2009). “Recognition of home injury risks by novice parents of toddlers”
Statistics on falling furniture injuries: Consumer Product Safety Commission (2019). “Product Instability or Tip-Over Injuries and Fatalities Associated with Televisions, Furniture, and Appliances: 2019 Report”
Window blinds–related injuries among children: Pediatrics (2018). “Pediatric Injuries Related to Window Blinds, Shades, and Cords.”
Drowning facts: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
A fence decreases the odds of pool drowning by 83%: Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (1998). “Pool fencing for preventing drowning of children”