Last reviewed by Faculty of Harvard Medical School on November 3, 2012
By Henry H. Bernstein, D.O.
Harvard Medical School
The holidays are an exciting time of year for kids. Here are some tips, adapted from the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the American Academy of Pediatrics, to help make sure the holidays are a safe time for children.
- When purchasing an artificial tree, look for the label "Fire Resistant."
- When purchasing a live tree, find a fresh tree, which will stay green longer and be less of a fire hazard than a dry tree. To check for freshness, remember:
- A fresh tree is green.
- Fresh needles are hard to pull from the branches and do not break when bent between your fingers.
- The bottom of the trunk of a fresh tree is sticky with tree sap.
- When the tree is held upright and the trunk is bounced on the ground, a dry tree will lose many needles.
- Make sure your tree stand can hold trees as tall as the one you have selected. A tree that is too big for its stand could easily tip over.
- Before putting a fresh tree in the stand, cut 1 to 2 inches off its trunk. This exposes fresh wood, which will absorb water better and keep the tree from drying out and becoming a fire hazard. Remember to keep the stand filled with water. Fresh trees can drink as much as a gallon a day!
- Set up your tree in a cool spot, away from fireplaces, radiators or portable heaters.
- Place the tree out of the way of traffic and do not block doorways.
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Indoor and Outdoor Lights
- Use only lights that have been tested for safety by an independent testing laboratory.
- Check each set of lights before using, even if you've just purchased them. Make sure that all the bulbs work and that there are no frayed wires, broken sockets or loose connections.
- Never plug more than three standard-size sets of lights into one extension cord.
- Before using lights outdoors, make sure they are labeled safe for outdoor use.
- Fasten outdoor lights securely to trees, house walls or other firm supports to protect the lights from wind damage. To hold lights in place, use insulated staples or hooks, not nails or tacks. Never pull or tug lights when taking them down.
- For added safety against shocks, plug all outdoor electric decorations into circuits with ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs). Portable outdoor GFCIs can be purchased where electrical supplies are sold. Permanent GFCIs can be added to household circuits by a qualified electrician.
- Never use electric lights on a metallic tree. The tree can become charged with electricity from faulty lights, and a person touching a branch could be electrocuted.
- Keep old-fashioned candle-shaped "bubbling" lights away from children. These lights, with their bright colors and bubbling movement, can tempt curious children to break the glass, which can cut, and drink the poisonous liquid inside.
- Turn off all lights on trees and other decorations when you go to bed or leave the house. Lights could short out and start a fire.
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- Use only flame-resistant or noncombustible materials to trim a tree. Choose tinsel or artificial icicles made of plastic or other materials that do not contain lead, which can be harmful if ingested by children.
- Never use lighted candles on a tree or near other evergreens. Always use non-flammable holders and place candles where they will not be knocked down, out of reach of children, and away from wrapping paper and other decorations.
- In homes with small children, take special care to avoid or place far out of reach:
- Decorations that are sharp or breakable
- Items with small removable parts that could be swallowed or inhaled
- Trimmings that look like candy or food, which might tempt a child to eat them
- Wear gloves when decorating with spun glass "angel hair" to avoid eye and skin irritation.
- Follow container directions carefully when using artificial snow sprays to avoid lung irritation.
- When making paper decorations, look for materials labeled flame-resistant or noncombustible. Never place paper decorations near open flames or electrical connections.
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- Before lighting any fire, remove all greens, papers, and other decorations from the fireplace area. Check to see that the flue is open.
- Keep a screen in front of the fireplace all the time a fire is burning.
- Use care with "fire salts," which produce colored flames when thrown on wood fires. They contain chemicals that can cause intense stomach irritation or vomiting if eaten. Keep them away from children.
- Do not burn wrapping papers in the fireplace. They catch fire quickly and burn intensely and may cause the fire to get out of control.
- Do not burn evergreens in the fireplace. When dry, they burn quickly and may flare out of control, sending sparks flying into a room or up the chimney where creosote deposits may catch fire.
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- Fully cook meats, poultry and fish. Always keep raw foods and cooked foods separate, and use separate utensils when preparing them.
- Wash all vegetables and fruit in clean drinking water before slicing or eating, even if you plan to peel them first (for example, cucumbers, melons or oranges).
- Always thaw meat in the refrigerator, never on the countertop, and do not put frozen meat in a slow cooker.
- Foods that require refrigeration should be put away as soon as possible and should never be left at room temperature for more than two hours.
- Wash your hands frequently, and make sure your children do the same.
- Never put a spoon that has been used to taste food back into food without washing it.
- Be sure to keep hot liquids and foods away from the edges of counters and tables, where they can be knocked over easily by a young child.
- Clean up immediately after a holiday party. A toddler could rise early and choke on leftover food or come in contact with alcohol or tobacco.
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- Read and heed labels for age and safety recommendations.
- Match toys to the child's age and abilities.
- Consider the ages of other children in the household when purchasing a toy. For example, a toy for an 8-year-old may have parts that can be harmful to his 2-year-old sister.
- Do not give toys with small parts to children younger than 3. A toy with pieces that can fit inside a toilet paper roll should be considered a choking hazard for small children.
- Be careful of holiday gift wrapping, like bags, paper, ribbons and bows, and un-inflated or broken balloons. Small children can suffocate or choke on these items.
- Avoid toys with cords or strings that may strangle infants or young children.
- Avoid toys that shoot small objects.
- Avoid toys that make loud or shrill noise that can damage hearing.
- By law, toys intended for children younger than 8 should not have sharp metal or glass edges.
- To prevent burns and electrical shocks, do not give young children (under age 10) toys that must be plugged into an electrical outlet.
- Remember to include appropriate protective gear, such as helmets with bicycles; helmets, wrist guards, elbow pads and kneepads with inline skates or scooters; and eye goggles with hobby kits.
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Henry H. Bernstein, D.O., is a senior lecturer in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and the chief of general pediatrics at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. He is the former director of primary care at Children's Hospital Boston.