The holiday season is among the most treasured times of year. But for many of us, December also is the most harried and stressful month, even without unexpected pop-ins from the in-laws or toy instruction sheets that don't seem to be written in English. It also has the potential to be the most dangerous.
With all that's going on this season -- toy shopping, wrapping, decorations and lighting -- the following tips might help you keep the holidays on the merry -- and safe -- side.
Shopping for toys can be hard. After all, it means trying to think like a two-year old, or even worse, a 12-year old. Don't let a toy's popularity trump your instincts. Select toys that are appropriate for your child's age and interests, and during family get-togethers, make sure to keep toys designed for older kids away from younger siblings and neighbors. A good way to judge whether a toy is right for your son or daughter is to read the instructions on the toy before buying it. And from a safety standpoint, pay special attention to toys that come with separate battery chargers, which usually have their own instructions and warnings. Of special concern are the chargers that do not have devices that prevent overcharging, which can cause fire or explosion.
Wrapping -- and more to the point, unwrapping -- can have its own set of worries. In the excitement of tearing open presents, be sure to save all instructions as well as the small pieces and accessories often included in packages. Immediately toss all paper, ribbon and bows, which small children can choke on. And don't burn wrapping paper in the fireplace. It can ignite suddenly, cause flash fires and burn intensely.
Holiday decorations often include age-old family traditions, but they are not without potential hazards. Decorations that have sharp points and edges or that are breakable should be kept out of the reach of children. And that goes also for tree and other decorations that might resemble candy or other treats that could tempt kids. Tree decorations should be noncombustible or flame-resistant, and it's a good idea to replace real-flame candles with battery-operated ones. If you do use real candles, place them in sturdy holders, trim the wicks to 1⁄4-inch and always burn them within sight, particularly with small children at home, and at a safe distance from combustibles. Of course, every home should have a fire extinguisher. Check to see that it is fully charged and make sure that all the adults at home know how to use it.
Among the more common holiday season mishaps have to do with forgetting to turn off holiday lights when leaving the house or going to bed. Large inflatable yard decorations also can put kids at risk. Check the air pump regularly to ensure it's working properly. If any of the display deflates, either pump it back up or remove it immediately. Children can become entrapped in collapsed displays. It's also worth noting that many holiday decorative plants -- mistletoe, holly and poinsettias, among them -- are considered potentially poisonous and should be kept out of the reach of children and pets. (If you suspect your child has ingested any of these plants, immediately call your doctor or the National Poison Center at 1-800-222-1222.)
You don't have to be Clark Griswold to appreciate the potential dangers of holiday lighting. First, to protect little fingers from shock, make sure there is a bulb in every socket. If a bulb is burned out, leave it in the socket until you replace it. Use only lights that have been tested and certified by an independent laboratory (such as Underwriters Laboratories) and carry the UL certification.
Take a close look at light strings each year (even new ones); discard any that are worn or show signs of frayed wires, broken sockets or loose connections. To avoid overloading circuits, don't connect more than three strands together. Before replacing a bulb, unplug the light string and read the original package to verify proper wattage and voltage. It goes without saying to never use electric lights on a metallic tree. If there are any faulty connections, they can electrically charge the tree and can cause severe shock. Instead, try colored spotlights.
When it comes to outdoor lighting, be sure to keep outdoor electrical connectors above ground and out of puddles and snow. Use only outdoor-rated lighting outside your home and never use indoor extension cords outside. Finally, make certain outdoor circuits are equipped with an approved, weather-proof, ground fault, circuit interrupter (GFCI), which helps prevent shorts that can result in fires.