Keeping children safe this holiday season

Claire McCarthy, MD

Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

Follow me on Twitter @drClaire

Holidays are best when they are spent having fun with friends and family — not spent in an emergency room. Yet every year that’s where thousands of people end up, due to holiday-related injuries and illnesses. Here are some tips to help keep your children safe and well this holiday season, from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Holiday decorations

They make everything more festive, that’s true, but they can be dangerous.

  • If you buy a live tree, make sure it’s not dried out. Cut a few inches off the bottom, and keep the stand filled with water.
  • If you use an artificial tree, be sure it’s fire resistant.
  • Be careful about where you put a tree. Don’t put it near something hot, don’t put it somewhere it’s likely to get knocked over, or where it blocks people walking.
  • If there are small children in the house, don’t use decorations that children could choke on, or that could break easily and cause cuts. If you want to put them on a tree, keep them up high.
  • Avoid decorations that look like food. Children might try to eat them.
  • Check lights for loose or frayed wires before putting them up.
  • Before putting lights outside, be sure they are meant to go outside (water and electricity is a bad combination).
  • Remember that mistletoe berries, Jerusalem cherries, and holly berries can be poisonous if eaten.
  • If you light candles, make sure that they are somewhere safe, and don’t leave them unattended.


Make sure that they bring joy, not harm. This is most important for young children.

  • Pay attention to the age recommendations, and follow them. They are there for a reason.
  • If there aren’t age recommendations to guide you, don’t buy (or otherwise gift) anything with small pieces for a child less than 3 years old. This includes small pieces that are seemingly attached (like car wheels or buttons on clothes) but could come unattached.
  • Be cautious of anything involving button batteries or magnets if there are small children in the house. Swallowing either one can lead to serious problems.
  • Remove tags, strings, and ribbons from toys before giving to a young child to play with.
  • Be careful of toys that involve projectiles (and toy weapons). You can buy them, but have family ground rules before using them.
  • If there are children of various ages in the house, while you are out shopping, buy some containers with lids to hold the big kids’ toys (like all those Lego bricks), so you can keep them separate from the little kids’ toys.

Holiday food

Making holiday food can be a wonderful tradition, and can be safe with a few precautions.

  • Make sure meat and poultry is cooked thoroughly, and raw produce is washed well.
  • Thaw meat in the refrigerator, not on the counter.
  • Keep cooked and raw food separated in the refrigerator, so that the raw stuff doesn’t contaminate the cooked stuff with bacteria.
  • While sampling the uncooked food or sweet is half the fun, be sure that the uncooked food is safe to eat uncooked, and use a different utensil to sample than to stir.
  • Wash your hands — and your helpers’ hands — often.
  • If there are small children underfoot while you cook, keep hot liquids out of reach, use back burners instead of front whenever possible, and turn pot handles so that they are out of reach. Keep knives out of the reach of curious children trying to be helpful, too.
  • After a party, clear up food (especially food that could be choked on) and beverages (especially alcoholic ones) from anywhere within the reach of a child who may wake up before you in the morning.

Holiday visits

Spending time at other people’s houses is an important part of the holiday season.

  • If you have small children, do a quick assessment of risks like stairs, kitchens, bathrooms, medications, and access to the outside. Make a plan as to where your child should — and shouldn’t — be while you visit.
  • Bring a few safe toys for your child to play with.
  • It’s easy to get distracted at a holiday party. Make a plan to be sure your child is supervised at all times.
  • If you are planning to drink alcohol, either have a designated driver or make a plan for a different way to get home.
  • If you are planning more than just a day or evening trip, check out our post on safe travels with children.

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