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Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

Guard Your Child Against Accidental Injuries

By Leann M. Lesperance, M.D., Ph.D.

Although tremendously rewarding, being a parent is the toughest job I have ever done. And I'm a pediatrician! Just as I begin to feel comfortable about something, another challenge comes along.

One early challenge was in dealing with emergencies. It was our summer family reunion. The weekend had passed by too quickly and no one wanted to say goodbye. My two young children were over-tired, having stayed up well past their usual bedtimes, when I heard an urgent cry. I knew immediately it was coming from my almost 3-year-old daughter, who had been playing just a few feet away. Apparently she had jumped off a chair (for the 50th time that evening) and just landed the wrong way. My heart sank to my toes when I saw her arm. It did not take a medical degree to know that it was badly broken and we were miles away from the nearest hospital. Of course, I blamed myself, both the mother and pediatrician. I'm an expert at feeling guilty, even more so since having children! If only I had been watching her more closely…

While it seems nearly impossible to keep an eye on our children every second of every day, there are things we can do to keep them as safe as possible. Perhaps you have heard the expression, "there's no such thing as an accident." I have used it often when talking with my husband (who is not a health care professional) about unsafe situations. In fact, safety experts no longer use the term "accident" (a random event that cannot be prevented), but rather talk about "unintentional injuries," which usually can be prevented.

Did you know that injuries are the most common cause of death during childhood and adolescence beyond the first few months of life? Most of these involve motor vehicles, drowning, fires and burns, choking, bicycles or poisoning. We have talked about ways to prevent many of these injuries in previous columns. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Put your child in an age-appropriate car seat that is correctly installed in the back seat, for every ride, no matter how short. Older kids and adults must always wear their seat belts, too.
  • Teach your child water safety and never let your child swim alone.
  • Put smoke detectors on every floor of your home and change the batteries at least every six months.
  • Set your water heater no higher than 120 degrees.
  • Watch young children closely when they are eating and do not serve them foods that commonly cause choking, such as hot dogs, nuts, hard candies and whole grapes.
  • Wear a helmet when riding a bike (and other protective gear for other sports).
  • Keep medicines and poisons locked up and out of the reach of children.

Since my daughter broke her arm, I would add to this list:

  • Make sure your children get enough sleep. Not surprisingly, children (and adults) who are well-rested are less likely to get hurt. They also tend to do better in school and usually are in better moods. Although each child is unique, generally the younger a child is, the more sleep he needs. For example, a 2-year-old needs about 12 hours each day, while a 10-year-old requires about 10 hours. Even teens need nine or nine and a half hours each day. Tired teens are responsible for more than half of sleep-related auto accidents each year.
  • Make sure your children get enough to eat and drink. Many children have a hard time paying attention or are short-tempered when they are hungry or thirsty, putting them at increased risk of injuries due to carelessness. For example, poisonings in children are most common at mealtimes, when parents are busy preparing meals and children are more likely to grab at things and put them in their mouths because they are hungry or thirsty. Most kids need three meals and at least two snacks each day! Remember to pack snacks and water whenever you leave the house.
  • Know what to do in case of emergency. Despite our best efforts, injuries do happen and it is important to have a plan for handling them. Post emergency numbers near a phone where you can get them quickly, including your child's doctor, the local hospital, and the National Poison Control number (1-800-222-1222). Take classes in CPR and basic first aid; keep a first-aid kit in your home. When traveling, be sure to take your insurance cards and any important medical information (including immunizations) and know the location of the nearest emergency facility.

My daughter's arm healed, but the memories of that night will stay with me forever. Hopefully, this will reinforce for you (as it did me) the importance of keeping your home as safe as possible!

Leann M. Lesperance, M.D., Ph.D. is a lecturer on the Harvard Medical School faculty and a clinical assistant professor at SUNY-Upstate Medical University. She practices pediatrics in Binghamton, New York. She also holds a doctorate in medical engineering and is a research assistant professor in the Department of Bioengineering at Binghamton University.

Last updated February 26, 2008




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