As summer arrives, so does the prime injury season for children. Parents have different ideas about how to keep their kids safe, but their assumptions don't always match up with some of the biggest threats.
"By far, the leading cause of death in children is injuries, and there's a lot we can do to prevent those injuries," said Garry Gardner, a pediatrician in Darien, Ill., and chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics' committee on injury, violence and poison prevention. "Injuries, in general, cause more deaths in kids over a year of age than the next seven leading causes of death combined."
Parents shouldn't underestimate their role in keeping their kids out of harm's way, said Alfred Sacchetti, an emergency physician at Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center in Camden, N.J. "You are the No. 1 safety feature that comes with your child." Here are some of the biggest safety risks for children, and what you can do to minimize them.
Suffocation and strangulation. This pair is the leading cause of unintentional injury deaths in children younger than 1, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
How to reduce the risk: Make sure your infant has a sleeping environment free of pillows and soft bedding, and put him or her to sleep on his back in a crib, rather than in a bed with adults. Also position the baby far away from loose or hanging cords.
Parents should use cribs with four fixed sides, rather than those with sides that drop down. With the latter, parts can more easily break, deform or detach, opening up spaces where youngsters can become entrapped and suffocate, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission and Consumer Reports. Drop-side cribs have been responsible for 32 infant and toddler deaths in the past nine years, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which has recalled 7 million such cribs since 2005.
Drowning. Among children ages 1 to 4, drowning is nearly tied with motor-vehicle accidents as the leading cause of death. Incidents frequently occur around swimming pools and bathtubs.
How to reduce the risk: Never leave a child unattended in a bathtub or allow a kid to swim without supervision. Avoid making or answering phone calls; that's the biggest distraction for parents when children are in a bath or pool, sometimes with fatal results, Sacchetti said.
Home swimming pools should have a fence that wraps around all sides of the pool instead of having one side open to the house, he said. Having four-sided fencing plus a separate pool-entrance gate can greatly reduce the likelihood of a child falling in and drowning.
Swimming lessons for kids over 6 months old can be fun, but parents shouldn't get a false sense of security; there's no such thing as drown-proofing your child, Gardner said.
Motor-vehicle crashes. Car accidents are the leading cause of death among children older than 1, according to the CDC. And they account for as many as two-thirds of deaths among ages 15 to 24.
How to reduce the risk: Using age-appropriate car seats is critical to boosting a small child's chances of surviving a crash, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Infants from birth to at least age 1 and 20 pounds should ride facing backward in a car seat placed in the back seat. After that, children should ride in the back seat using forward-facing toddler seats and then booster seats until regular seat belts fit properly—usually not until age 8 or when they're 4 feet 9 inches tall, the NHTSA said.
Parents can have their car-seat installation checked by an expert for free. The NHTSA's website lists car-safety experts by area.
Other car-related accidents. Nearly 42 percent of the nontraffic fatalities in children under age 15 between 2004 and 2008 happened because drivers backed over kids, who often were in the vehicles' blind spots, according to Kids and Cars, a nonprofit that tracks such accidents. More than 18 percent of nontraffic deaths occurred because children got heatstroke after being left in cars. Other risks include power-window strangulation, trunk entrapment and vehicles that are accidentally set in motion.
How to reduce the risk: Teach children not to play in or around cars and supervise them carefully around vehicles. Make sure kids aren't around before pressing the gas pedal.
It doesn't take long for a child left in a car to overheat and die. So drivers should put a stuffed animal in the front seat or a briefcase or purse in the back seat so they don't forget about the child in the back seat.
Head injuries. Brain injuries remain among the most devastating for patients.
How to reduce the risk: Always use the proper car seat or seat belts. Make sure kids wear sport-specific helmets when they're playing sports or riding bicycles or skateboards. A child's aversion to helmets is no excuse for not wearing them, Sacchetti said. "Your responsibility is to be their parent, not their friend," he said.