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Early Childhood Safety

Angela Oswalt, MSW, Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Caregivers can help their children to stay healthy by taking them for immunizations and regular preventative health care and also by making sure certain safety precautions have been taken as children and families go about their daily business.

One of the things responsible caregivers should do is to childproof their home. We covered steps new parents can take to childproof their home in an earlier article which we now encourage you to look at again. The childproofing information contained in that article continues to be of use in helping keep children safe through the pre-operational preschool years. Sections of the article concerned with fire safety, pet safety, outdoor safety and car safety; and First Aid are particularly relevant. Even though preschool children are now older, more physically capable, and more mentally mature than infants, they still need quite a bit of protection. In fact, pre-school children may be at greater risk for harm than infants because of their newly developed abilities and interests.

Learning how to ride a bicycle or to use roller skates can be an exciting development for children. It's important that kids always wear properly-fitting helmets and appropriate safety pads whenever they get to use this equipment, however. Children many easily fall and hurt themselves if they are not protected by safety gear. Adults can help motivate children to wear appropriate safety equipment by modeling the use of these protective items themselves. For instance, caregivers should always draw attention to the fact that they wear a protective helmet when they ride a bicycle. If Grandma and Dad wear helmets when they ride a bike, little Danny will be more likely to want to wear one too. Caregivers can further enhance children's safety while using wheeled toys like bicycles by insuring that they are properly maintained and sized appropriately for the child. Adults should read all manufacturer instructions and warnings for wheeled toys, and follow the safety guidelines offered therein, so as to best protect their children as they use those toys.

The best way to make sure young children remain safe while trying new activities is to monitor and set limits on what they are allowed to do so as to avoid their getting into a situation which is too physically or emotionally demanding. For instance, preschoolers should never be allowed to ride in or near busy streets (or even near not-very-busy-streets!), as drivers on such streets may not anticipate the presence of young children, and a serious accident might occur. Instead, young bicyclists should remain in driveways and on quiet residential streets with supervision until they learn proper traffic safety rules and can masterfully maneuver their wheels. No matter where children are allowed to play during this stage of life, they always require careful adult supervision of their activities and strict limitation of what sort of activities they may engage in so as to best protect them from dangers they are not yet able to anticipate or respond to.

Traffic safety is a topic that should be taught to all children, not just to children who are riding bikes. Children need to learn safety rules for how to conduct themselves while walking around the neighborhood, too. For example, they need to be explicitly taught that cars are seriously dangerous, that they must never play in the street, and that they must always look out vigilantly for cars and other vehicles and stay out of their way. Young children should be taught to stay on the sidewalk, whenever one is available, and to walk on the side of the road facing traffic when there is no sidewalk, so as to be more aware of vehicles coming toward them. Children need to be taught to cross the street only at an intersection, to look both ways before crossing, and to obey basic traffic lights and signs (e.g, "STOP," "WALK", and "DO NOT WALK") that may be present at the crosswalk. Caregivers should make every walk outside a learning experience.

Learning the "rules of the road" can be difficult for young children; it's a lot of information for young minds to remember. Because even one mistake can result in serious injury, caregivers should require their young children to hold their hands when crossing the street. Caregivers should also "practice what they preach" by following all traffic rules that children are being taught to follow. If little Cara sees Daddy and Mommy obey the traffic signs and look both ways before crossing the street, she will be more likely to repeat those behaviors as well. Caregivers who teach their children one thing and then model the opposite behavior only confuse and frustrate their little ones.

Because of their expanded mobility and increasing social awareness, preschool children end up spending more time in the community. As a consequence, preschool children need to be taught how to respond to and interact safely with strangers. Teaching children about strangers is a difficult task as it requires parents to balance the need to keep children safe from unknown threatening people, while also not encouraging them to fear every new person they meet. Caregivers need to provide close supervision while in the community with young children. In the store, mall, park, or front yard, kids should always be within a responsible adult's line-of-sight. This can be difficult, because curious children can quickly wander away as Mom is studying prices on the grocery store shelf. Adults who find that their children have wandered off should round them up as quickly as possible. Moreover, caregivers should teach young children that it is never okay to follow or to go somewhere with a stranger. Caregivers should emphasize that even if the stranger is offering candy, carrying a puppy, or asking for help, children should yell "No!" as loudly as possible and run back to the nearest trusted and known adult.

Caregivers should not put young children's names on jackets, backpacks, or clothing where it is visible to strangers. Potential predators can use this knowledge to make the child feel more comfortable and safe. For example, a stranger may see Jack's name embroidered on his backpack, and say, "Hey Jack, I'm a friend of your Mom's. She thought you might like to help me find my puppy. Why don't you come help me find my lost puppy?" Instead, identifying labels should be placed inside the item or garment (e.g., on a tag). More information on how caregivers can protect their young children from the threat of child abuse, both from strangers, as well as from trusted friends and family, can be found in our Child Abuse Prevention article.

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