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FAMILY HOLIDAY TIPS // Give kids the gift of a safe holiday

For most, the holiday season is a special and joyous time. Unfortunately, children sometimes complete their celebrating in the hospital or in an emergency room, needless victims of accidents caused by the very things designed to delight them _ toys, Christmas trees, decorations and plants.

As daily routines are disrupted and adults involve themselves in merrymaking, parents sometimes forget how much trouble their little ones can get into. Since more children seem to get in harm's way during the holidays than at any other time of the year, parents need to be especially diligent.

House fires take a terrible and unnecessary toll every holiday season. The electric lights that give the Christmas tree its glow pose dangerous threats.

Keep all matches and lighters out of your child's reach. Candles should be removed from flammable materials such as paper, plastic and plants. A dry Christmas tree is a potential fire hazard, so always test your tree for freshness. (Bounce the trunk sharply on the ground; if the needles fall off, it is too dry). Maintain a tree's hydration by providing one to two quarts of water daily, and be sure to keep it away from fireplaces and other sources of heat.

Electrical fires are easily prevented by discarding decorative lights that are broken, cracked or have frayed wires. Use only three sets of lights per extension cord and plug lights with child proof plugs behind the tree. Lights should always be turned off when you are away or upon retiring for the evening. (Use a timer!)

Decorating with plants can make a house more colorful, but be aware that if they are eaten by a small child they can cause serious problems. Twenty to 30 holly berries can be fatal to a toddler. Mistletoe berries are less toxic, but ingestion by a youngster can cause vomiting, diarrhea, nausea and abdominal pains. A severe overdose can lead to convulsions, loss of blood pressure and serious heart problems. Keep both kinds of berries out of the house and call poison control immediately should you discover an ingestion.

Contrary to popular belief, poinsettia leaves are less toxic than are holly and mistletoe; but ingestion does cause a skin rash and stomach upset. Tragically, a few years ago a Pinellas County infant choked on pine needles she picked up from the floor around the tree. Keep needles swept or use an artificial tree as long as small children are around. Anchor your tree securely to prevent toppling, and trim branches at a toddler's eye level, since needles and branches can injure an eye. Preservatives put in tree holders may keep the trees green, but inquisitive toddlers may find the chemicals more appetizing then dinner. Beware!

Children are naturally attracted to colorful and glittering decorations. Keep any breakable decorations out of reach, especially keepsakes. Avoid edible decorations such as candy, since toddlers have trouble distinguishing between decorations that can be eaten and those that can't. Every winter, small children are treated after they have swallowed substances such as pine needles, tinsel, angel hair, Styrofoam and artificial snow. When glass ornaments break, sharp pieces are formed that can be inhaled or swallowed, easily cutting your child. Keep these breakables out of reach.

Even when potentially dangerous decorations are inaccessible, other holiday hazards exist. When wrapping gifts, be sure to dispose of the numerous pins in clothes, sharp plastic tags and plastic covering. After wrapping, put away scissors, knives and ribbons.

When choosing toys, use caution, judgment and common sense. Matching the proper gift to the child by ability and age is important for both safety and enjoyment. Don't ignore manufacturers' age guidance. Even something as innocent-looking as a stuffed animal may have eyes that can loosen and be swallowed or interior wires that can cut or stab if exposed.

Try to think of safety every time you consider a potential gift. Will a small piece break off? Will sharp edges cause cuts or scratches? Is my child coordinated enough for the toy? Will the toy require time for learning? Do parents have the time to teach the child?

Babies and toddlers put everything in their mouths, so it's important to find toys appropriate for their age. Gifts that have detachable small parts or that can fit in a child's mouth can pose a choking hazard. When you buy gifts for your older children, keep in mind the ages of others in the household. Remind brothers and sisters to keep games and toys away from their younger siblings.

A simple test will help determine whether toy parts are too small. A toy should be rejected as unsafe if any of its parts are small enough to fit into the cardboard core of a toilet paper roll. An unlikely hazard for children are the small disc batteries that power modern toys and games. The chemicals in these batteries can cause problems after stomach acid corrodes the battery shell, releasing caustic acids that can eat through the intestines, requiring emergency surgery.

Remember, children play with the packaging as well as the toy inside. Watch out for plastic bags and plastic coverings, and check boxes for staples and other dangerous materials.

Holiday visitors can bring new and potentially dangerous items into your house. One of the most hazardous is cigarette smoke. Remind guests that your house is smoke-free, and that secondhand smoke will ruin your child's holiday if it causes an ear infection or exacerbates the child's bronchitis and asthma. Grandma and Grandpa may have medications in bottles that are not in child-proof containers. Furthermore, they usually keep these drugs on the nightstand or dresser to remind themselves to take them. Ask visitors to lock all medicines in their suitcases.

Time away from work and other obligations can become golden memories of quality time, but never let your guard down.

Toy Safety Guide

Here's a handy shopping guide to age-appropriate toys, developed by the National Safe Kids Campaign:

Infant to 1-year-old. The most suitable toys for this age group include blocks of wood or plastic; stuffed animals without button noses and eyes; cradle gyms; rattles; mobiles and squeeze toys.

2-year-olds. At this age, the best toys are cloth, plastic, or cardboard books; sturdy dolls with no small, removable parts; large soft balls; push-and-pull toys; stacking toys and lightweight toys.

2- to 5-year-olds. These children do well with wood or plastic building blocks; crayons; finger paints; clay; a small wagon or wheelbarrow; and outdoor toys such as a sandbox, slide or swing.

5- to 9-year-olds. Recommended toys include sewing sets, card games, bicycles, crafts, jump rope, roller skates, puppets, electric trains and sports equipment. Tape recorders and battery operated toys should be checked regularly for loose or exposed wires.

10- to 14-year-olds. These children typically enjoy computers, microscopes, table and board games and equipment used for outdoor sports.