Taking the time to search your house for potential hazards could save your toddler’s life. To do this thoroughly, you’ll want to look at your home from your child’s point of view. “Get down on your hands and knees and crawl around the living room,” says child safety expert Debra Holtzman, author of The Safe Baby: A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Home Safety and Healthy Living. “You will be surprised by what you see!”
Before you take off, it’s good to know what these home safety hazards are. From obvious dangers like unprotected electrical outlets, open flames and unsecured window screens to less-overt ones like TV cords, houseplants and bookshelves, these 12 home safety hazards are the ones every parent of a toddler should be on the lookout for.
A roaring fire is always a no-kid zone, but a fireplace can remain hot long after the last ember flickers out. “Many people have a fire at night, and they watch the kids. But in the morning, that fireplace may still be hot,” says Jacqueline Jones, MD, the author of Medical Parenting and a clinical associate professor at Weill Cornell Medical College. “Keep the area protected for at least 24 hours after a fire.”
Heat aside, the sharp, hard edges of a fireplace’s hearth can trip up carefree toddlers. Consider adding a soft border to prevent injuries, such as a fireplace guard, or a fence to keep kids at bay. “A lot of people have decorative things around the fireplace — objects, matches, fireplace utensils,” says Jones. “You have to be cognizant of keeping kids away from the stuff that’s there, too.”
Every year, 2,850 children experience shocks or burns from electrical outlets, and nearly one-third of these incidents are young kids sticking everyday household items — paper clips, keys, pins — in outlets, according to the Electrical Safety Foundation International (ESFI). It recommends tamper-resistant receptacles (TRR), which is a type of outlet that only opens for appropriately sized plugs.
If your home was built in the last 12 years, it should already have TRRs, as they’ve been required by the National Electric Code since 2008. ESFI says TRRs can be retrofitted for as little as $2 per outlet; however, they do need to be installed by a licensed electrician. If that’s not feasible, consider outlet covers and caps to keep curious hands away.
A window does not have to be wide open to pose a threat. “A child can fall out of a window that is open more than four inches, and screens offer no protection,” warns Holtzman. Install window guards throughout your home, though be sure to use quick-release mechanisms on any that are part of your fire-escape plan. If guards are too expensive, consider a window-stopping device, which attaches to the inside of the window frame, to prevent the window from opening more than four inches.”
A gate on the stairs is a tried-and-true way to redirect wandering toddler traffic. When shopping for one, you’ll want to ask yourself this question: How strong is my child? “A gate you’re sort of stepping over and is not attached to the wall may not be best for a forceful three-year-old,” says Jones. Instead, consider mountable gates that are extra high.
Blinds, Drapes and Shades
“When my son was five, he wrapped a cord on a drape around his neck,” says Jones. “I went around and cut every cord off and never lowered our shades again.” You don’t have to go that far, but Jones recommends tying cords up and moving retractable cords out of the way. The Window Covering Safety Council also recommends moving furniture and climbable surfaces away from windows. In 2018, the Window Coverings Manufacturing Association announced a ban on the manufacturing of window blind cord, but older homes might not be in compliance.
The other cords to be aware of are the ones attached to TVs, computers, and appliances — and not just because they’re a strangling hazard. “A small child can be crawling around at floor level, and if they pull the computer or TV cord, it can fall on top of them,” says Jones. A Velcro cable tie can shore up extra cords, and a cable organizer will not only keep them out of sight but also tiny hands. When it comes to lamps, choose ones with sturdy bases so they are not easily knocked over. If you’re worried about a TV tipping over, consider mounting it to the wall or securing it with an anti-tip strap.
While you’re out there buying straps for your TV, be sure to pick up some anchors for your bookcases. A bookshelf is like an indoor ladder to a child — especially if there are enticing items on upper shelves — and climbing toddlers can pull bookshelves on top of them. Place your heaviest books and items on the bottom shelves and securely attach the unit to the wall.
Houseplants are great for indoor air quality, but some are toxic if ingested. “Dieffenbachia and philodendron are common houseplants that contain oxalates, microscopic crystals that are released into the mouth when the plant is chewed and cause extreme pain and inflammation,” says Holtzman. Only keep flowers and plants in your house if they are nontoxic. If you’re unsure, you can check with poison control.
While there are plenty of all-natural, kid-safe cleaning products to stock up on, you’ll want to keep toxic or potentially harmful products far from prying hands. This could mean putting them in cabinets and drawers protected by child-proof locks — something you may want on any cabinetry that’s low to the ground — or storing them high enough to be out of a toddler’s reach.
“Add a welcome mat at your front door for family members and guests to wipe their feet (or better yet, remove their shoes) before entering your home,” suggests Holtzman. “Pesticides and other harmful toxins can be easily tracked into the home on the soles of shoes and can settle into the carpet where your child plays, sits, and crawls.”
Keeping little ones away from boiling water, sharp knives and a hot stove may sound like Home Safety 101, but toddlers are fast and cooking is distracting. “Even when you’re being careful in the kitchen, a toddler can pull a plate that has something hot on it or go near the stove when your back is turned,” says Jones. “Make sure they’re out of the way, even when you’re cooking.”
Homes built before 1978 may contain poisonous lead paint, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Even if you keep your kids away from the paint, it can release toxic dust into the air. Buy a lead test at home and garden store to test your space, but do leave its removal to a professional.
“Baby-proofing can never be 100-percent effective,” says Holtzman. “Proper supervision is always required.” The key is to make sure potential hazards are out of reach and child-safety products are properly installed.
A version of this article was originally published February 2014. Additional reporting by Mary Fetzer.