Accidental injury is one of the biggest single causes of death in Ireland for children over the age of one. More children die each year as a result of accidents than from illnesses such as leukaemia or meningitis
Many of the accidents that happen in and around the home can be avoided. By identifying and understanding potential accident risks in the home, you can take some basic safety steps that will keep your children safe and give you peace of mind.
Where accidents happen
Accidents can happen anywhere in and around the home, but common places include the kitchen, bathroom and the stairs. Accidents in the kitchen and on the stairs are often the most serious.
Most childhood accidents happen in the late afternoon and early evening, in the summer, during school holidays and at the weekends.
Who is at risk?
Children up to the age of four are most likely to have an accident in the home, and boys are more at risk than girls.
Common types of accident in the home
Falls are the most common type of accident to occur around the home. Choking and suffocation, burns, scalds and poisoning are other common types of accident, particularly for the under-fives.
Causes of accidents
There are potential hazards in every home, such as hot water, household chemicals, fireplaces and sharp objects. Some house designs, such as those with balconies and open staircases, can also contribute to accidents.
Young children are not able to assess the risks all these things pose. Their perception of the environment around them is often limited and their lack of experience and development, such as their poor co-ordination and balance, can lead them to having an accident. Children are inquisitive and their curiosity can lead them into situations where accidents can happen.
There are several factors that can contribute to an accident happening, such as:
- distraction and poor supervision
- factors such as stress, a death in the family, chronic illness, homelessness and moving home
- changes to the child's usual routine or being in a hurry
- poor housing and overcrowded conditions
- a lack of familiarity with surroundings, such as when on holiday or visiting friends or relatives
When a child should go to hospital
A child should go to hospital after an accident if he or she:
- is or has been unconscious
- has stopped breathing at some stage
- is vomiting or drowsy
- has swallowed any small items, such as tablets, buttons or batteries
- is bleeding from the ears
- has lost a lot of blood
- may have internal injuries
- complains of severe pain anywhere
If you are worried or uncertain about your child’s injuries, go to your local accident and emergency department or your doctor’s surgery, whichever is closest or most appropriate.
The types of accidents children have in the home are often linked to their age and level of development.
At an early age, babies are able to wriggle, grasp, suck and roll over. As they grow (reaching the ages of six months to a year old) they may also be able to stand, sit, crawl and put things in their mouth.
As children get older they can walk and move about, reach things that are higher up, climb and find hidden objects. With their new-found sense of freedom and movement, toddlers can move quickly and accidents can happen in a matter of seconds.
Below are some of the most common types of accidents that happen to babies and young children, and advice about how you can prevent them.
Falls are by far the most common type of accident in the home. They account for 44% of all children's accidents.
For babies, the biggest danger is rolling off the edge of something such as a table, bed or sofa. Toddlers quickly learn how to climb and explore and it is very easy for a child to fall off a piece of furniture, down the stairs or out of a window or balcony.
Young children are likely to fall over and get knocks and bruises as they learn to walk, but serious accidents can be avoided. The following steps can help to prevent falls in the home:
- Make sure your baby cannot roll off the changing surface.
- Do not put a bouncing cradle, or similar, on a table or worktop. They can easily bounce off the edge.
- Fit restrictors to upstairs windows so they cannot be opened more than 10cm.
- Do not put chairs or anything a child might climb onto near windows.
- Fit safety gates approved by British Standards (BS 4125) at the top and bottom of stairs. Do not leave anything on the stairs that might cause someone to fall over.
- Make sure there is no room for a child to crawl through any banisters at the top of the stairs. Board them up if there is a risk of your child falling through them or getting stuck.
- If you have a private balcony, keep the door to it locked so your child cannot go onto it alone. If it has railings that your child could climb through, board them up or fit wire netting as a guard. Do not put anything a child can climb onto near balcony railings.
- Any furniture and kitchen appliances that could be pulled over should be secured to the wall.
Suffocating and choking
Babies and young children can easily swallow, inhale or choke on small items such as marbles, buttons, peanuts and small toys.
- Keep small objects out of the reach of small children.
- Choose toys that are designed for the age of your baby or child. Encourage older children to keep their toys away from your baby.
- Beware of clothing with cords or ribbons threaded through the neck, and dummies on necklace cords, as they can easily get caught and pull tightly on the neck.
- Lay your baby on their back in a cot to sleep. Do not put babies to sleep in an adult bed or on the sofa and do not use pillows as they can suffocate.
- Be careful with plastic bags as young children can put these over their heads and suffocate.
- Curtain and blind pull cords should be kept short and out of reach of children.
- Keep animals, especially cats, out of your bedrooms in case they jump into cots and beds. If they fall asleep in the wrong place they could suffocate your child. Attach a net over prams if necessary.
Domestic fires are one of the greatest risks to children. Children playing with matches and lighters frequently start house fires. The youngest children often hide from the danger and may not be found until it is too late. Always use a fireguard on an open fireplace and make sure it is attached to the wall. Do not lean or hang anything from it.
It is very important to:
- Fit smoke alarms on each floor of your home (preferably alarms that are connected to the mains or that have 10-year batteries), and make sure that you test them regularly.
- Keep matches and lighters out of children's reach.
- Extinguish and dispose of cigarettes carefully.
Have an escape plan worked out for your family and tell your child what to do in case of a fire. Practise the plan regularly.
Burns and scalds
Hot drinks cause most of the scalds to children under the age of five. A child's skin is much more sensitive than an adult's and hot water can scald for up to 15 minutes after it has boiled. Hot bath water is the biggest cause of severe and fatal scalding injuries in young children.
Children can also get burns from open fires, cookers, irons, hair straighteners and tongs, cigarettes, matches, lighters and other hot surfaces. To help prevent these accidents from occurring, make sure you:
- Switch off heated appliances, such as irons, hair straighteners and curling tongs, immediately after use and place out of your child's reach. Keep the cord safely out of reach as well.
- Always place hot drinks out of children's reach. Keep them away from the edges of tables and surfaces, and don't use tablecloths that children can pull at.
- Do not drink anything hot with a child on your lap.
- Use a cordless kettle or one with a coiled lead that can be kept short.
- Use the back rings on the cooker, whenever possible, and turn saucepan handles away from the edge.
- As much as possible, keep young children out of the kitchen.
- Before bathing your baby or child, check that the water is not too hot. A good test is to put your elbow in first. When filling the bath, run the cold water first before adding hot water. As your child gets older, teach them to test the water first, too.
Most poisoning accidents involve medicines, household products and cosmetics.
- Keep anything that may be poisonous (all medicines and pills, household cleaners and garden products) out of reach, preferably in a locked cupboard.
- Use containers that have child-resistant tops. But be aware that by the age of three, many children are able to open child-resistant tops, even if it takes them a little longer.
- Keep all dangerous chemicals in their original containers. For example, do not store weedkiller in an old drinks bottle as a young child may mistake it for something safe to drink.
- Dispose of unwanted medicines and chemicals carefully.
- Discourage your children from eating any plants or fungi when outside. Some can be extremely poisonous and even fatal.
Glass can cause serious cuts. Many children end up in hospital every year because of accidents with glass around the home. Many are also injured when glasses and bottles break.
- Use safety glass at a low level, such as in doors and windows. Safety glass is glass that is toughened and laminated and passes specially designed impact tests. Normal glass shatters more easily.
- Make existing glass safe by applying a shatter-resistant film.
- When buying furniture that includes glass, make sure it is safety approved.
- Always dispose of broken glass quickly and safely, wrapping it in newspaper before throwing it in the bin.
- If you own a greenhouse or cold frame (a structure to protect plants from the winter cold), make sure it has safety glazing or it is fenced off from children.
- Do not let a toddler walk around holding anything made of glass or anything sharp, such as scissors and sharp pencils.
Children can drown in just a few centimetres of water and should be supervised at all times when near any water.
- Never leave babies or children in the bath unsupervised, not even for a minute.
- Do not leave uncovered containers of liquid around the house.
- Store away paddling pools when not being used.
- Preferably, fill in garden ponds while children are small. If this is not possible, cover ponds with a rigid grille or fence them off securely. Be careful when your children visit other people's gardens.