Q: Dear Dr. Lanny: Can you talk about child proofing? My little guy is almost ready to crawl, and I wonder what a reasonable approach is to making our small, cluttered house as safe as possible. I want my son to be able to explore, but I don’t want him to have a terrible fall.
A: Child proofing a house is a goal that has yet to be fully accomplished in real life. Its degree of difficulty is comparable to achieving peace and cooperation between the Republicans and Democrats. Child proofing must be thought of as a relative concept unless you are willing to sacrifice all your furniture and worldly goods.
Even before your child can crawl, it is time to get down on your hands and knees and wander around your home seeking the hazards before he finds them.
I would like to say a few words about baby walkers. Walkers are fraught with danger, including the child hitting his head on the underside of tables or falling down staircases. Walkers are to be avoided. Standers, such as the ExerSaucer, are also fun, but much safer.
Meanwhile, back to your crawler. At any age stairs are a major concern, particularly basement stairs, which often lead to a cement floor or have nothing to prevent the child from falling over the side. Constant vigilance and gates or self-closing doors are imperative.
Make sure the floors are clean and free of dangerous items, such as glass, needles or pins, and little toys from older siblings. Amazingly Legos, colorful and attractive as they seem, are rarely a problem.
Pet food, slimy and unpleasant to adult sensibilities, may be very tempting to crawling or walking babies. It is, however, very unlikely to be a danger. If necessary, the animals get one shot at their food and then it’s gone until the next meal. They’ll learn.
Most parents are aware of simple safety locks for lower cabinets, with the understanding that there are some little children that would make Houdini proud of their ability to pick locks. Alternatively, you can put hazardous products up high, and pots, pans or canned goods in lower cabinets. And, yes, it is possible that one day when you open the canned good area, all the labels will have been removed and you will have mystery food. Annoying, but not dangerous.
Plug protectors do little except prevent cold air from getting into the house—thereby saving real money for future college tuition. Fortunately children rarely poke objects into open receptacles. More common, but still rare, are children who chew through electrical cords, causing horrific electrical burns around the mouth. Keep electrical cords and extensions out of sight whenever possible, and only use as much cord as needed.
Furniture can be hazardous beyond climbing and falling. Beware of sharp cornered glass or metal coffee tables. Beginning walkers may be very unstable and can seriously harm themselves if they hit such furniture. Buy or create corner protectors or use this opportunity to redecorate. Although newer flat screen TVs are much lighter than older models, they can still be a major danger if they fall on your child. Be absolutely sure your TV is on a stable platform.
Plants can be lovely to look at, and they can revitalize the air in your home. They can also be poisonous. If you know their names, common or scientific, look them up and act accordingly. If you don’t know what they are, then get them up high or give them away as gifts (to friends without little children). Try to live without pesticides for your plants or for the inevitable invasion of ants in the springtime. If you must use some bug killer, research ones that aren’t dangerous to children or pets.
Always try to keep a piece of your mind on childhood dangers. Keep hot soup, coffee or tea away from the edge of the table. Forget about tablecloths. Always take your pills as soon as you remove them from the pill bottle. And be sure to frisk elderly relatives who come to visit. They may have a pharmacy of pills with them and no safety caps, because there are no children at their home.
If, despite your best efforts, you find little Bubba sitting on the carpet surrounded by a sea of pills, DON’T PANIC! Gather the pills up. Put them back in their bottle, and call Poison Control at (800) 222-1222. Poison Control is always open, and the service has information on virtually every pharmaceutical or home product that exists. Things are rarely as bad as you fear, and the people who answer can either reassure you or direct you on the proper course of action.
Is that all? Hardly, but I believe that children should be encouraged to explore their world, to take physical risks, to smell the roses, even if they may occasionally get pricked by a thorn. Your job, again according to the gospel of me, is to encourage those behaviors, but within a context of common sense and a little research.
Send us your own suggestions for child proofing. We’d love to see your collective wisdom.
Dr. Alan Freshman, father of two grown sons, practices at Syracuse Pediatrics. Consult your own physician before making decisions about your family’s health care. Send e-mail to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.