The very events that make holiday seasons festive for kids – visiting family, lighting candles, and receiving toys, for example – also increase visits to the emergency room. But, in fact, virtually all the holiday-related pitfalls are avoidable with some foresight. Happy holidays!
(This is a compilation of timely reminders, some of which have appeared in previous postings.)
1. Vaccinate infants and young children for influenza. Family gatherings tend to bring together people of all ages and from different communities and place them in close contact with each other, with much hugging and kissing, all ideal for spreading flu-type viruses. Cases of flu are most likely to be serious in young children and in the elderly.
2. Leave kids home when they are sick. If your child is sick with a respiratory infection, give your friends and family the gift of not attending. Assume that children with bad coughs and runny noses are contagious. Especially vulnerable to such infections are the elderly, small children, pregnant women, individuals with immune problems and those undergoing radiation or chemotherapy treatments.
3. Mentally baby-proof homes you visit. The incidence of accidents and poisonings increases sharply during the holiday season, especially in homes where there are no children. Check out safe areas for infants to crawl around – free of lamps to pull down and away from balcony doors or stairs, for example. Doors and windows are often left open at parties. Mistletoe and holly berries cause intestinal upsets when ingested. Many tree ornaments are fragile and break easily, and the pieces can be ingested, causing cuts in the mouth. The hooks that suspend tree ornaments can also cause cuts.
4. Appoint a designated “toddler watcher.” Everyone wants to hold and play with infants and young children. But when “everyone” watches them, no one is in charge, and toddlers wander off. When you are not overseeing your child yourself, make sure that someone responsible is, and that they personally return the child to you. Teenagers make good babysitters but some are easily distracted from their chore or lose interest after a while.
5. Be wary of pets. No dog is totally predictable – and neither are children. Two-thirds of dogs that bite children had no history of aggressive behavior. Even breeds that make “excellent pets” may bite. Toddlers may innocently incite dogs by suddenly running towards them, arms flailing and making happy noises – behavior that animals may interpret as threatening. Pets are edgy during holidays, say veterinarians: owners have less time to spend with them; numerous people, many of them unfamiliar, are around; and there is often much activity and noise. Dogs are creatures of habit and may react aggressively when they surmise that their turf has been violated.
6. Never leave small children unattended near candles. While this is fairly obvious advice, candles cause more than 11,000 fires each year in the U.S. with 1200 related injuries and 150 deaths. A disproportionate number of these fires occur around holiday time. Many of the fire-related casualties are children (who are often fascinated by candles). Fireplaces are another source of danger.
7. Check toys. Well-meaning friends and relatives often bring toys that are age-inappropriate, with sharp edges or small pieces that can easily break off. Toys may have been brought from overseas and bypassed safety inspections, or may be old and were made before regulations existed. Toys requiring plugging into electric circuits are not generally appropriate for children younger than 10 years of age. Avoid toys which require small batteries – these can come out and be ingested.
8. Don’t eat food left standing at room temperature for more than two hours. Hosts of holiday meals are often inexperienced at preparing and serving food for large groups. Buffets are especially popular at holiday time, with people coming and going, but are often left sitting out too long. Creamy items are especially likely to spoil.
9. Know your child’s tolerance for socializing. Some young children love being the center of attention and thrive on being passed from adult to adult. Others do not – and become irritable and then irritating to others. For these children, a period alone with you in another room enjoying a quiet activity will make everyone feel better.
10. Family gatherings can help keep your kids healthy in the future. Use such occasions to gather information about the health of your relatives, says the U.S. Surgeon General. Relatives share genetic and environmental-related diseases. Such information allows physicians to evaluate the risks for your children and, increasingly, recommend actions to reduce risks. Try to include at least three generations of biological relatives. Include the name of diseases, age at diagnosis, and ages and cause of death of deceased. Arrive with your own written family’s health information and explain to relatives how it can help them. Very few will keep their information private. But if they insist, respect their wishes. For a template to help you record information, see: U.S. Surgeon General’s My Family Health Portrait