Health and Safety, Ages 2 to 5 Years
This topic suggests ways to help prevent illness and accidental injuries in young children. It does not cover every risk that a child faces, but it does cover many of the most common hazards and situations that can be dangerous to children ages 2 to 5 years.
What can you expect from your child at this age?
Children in this age range are gaining many new skills, and they feel more and more independent. They may be curious, want to explore the world around them, and act without thinking.
At this age, children see everything that happens as it relates to themselves. And they believe that what they wish for or expect to happen can affect what really happens. They overestimate what is in their control, which contributes to their vulnerability. They are often unaware of the consequences of their actions. This can lead to dangerous situations.
You can help decrease any dangers by accepting that your child will go through active and curious phases. Think about what you can do to avoid safety hazards. If your child is discovering the joys of riding a tricycle, for example, be sure to make riding in the street off-limits.
You can also find behaviors to teach and model. For example, if you wash your hands before eating, your child will probably also do this.
Remember that no one can watch a child's every move or make a home 100% safe all the time. Try to find a balance for supervising your child, taking safety precautions, and allowing your child to explore. Learn all you can about child growth and development. Doing so can help you learn how to respond to and make a positive impact on how your child behaves.
What can you do to help keep your child safe?
Your child is gaining in confidence and probably wants to explore. But your child still needs your close supervision and guidance. You can:
- Set up and consistently enforce rules and limits to help your child learn about dangers.
- Teach some basic safety rules and precautions. Do this inside and outside the home. For example, teach your child to always use the car seat and that ovens and toasters can cause burns. Talk with other caregivers about what problems could arise and how to prevent them.
- Practice healthy habits. Protect your child against illness and infection. For example, wash your hands often, keep toys clean, make sure your child is immunized, and go to all well-child visits.
- Take safety measures around the home. For example, store poisonous products out of your child's reach, and use safety covers on all electrical outlets.
How can your stress level affect your child's safety?
Taking care of yourself is a vital part of keeping your child safe. Most injuries to children happen when parents or caregivers are tired, hungry, or emotionally drained or are having relationship problems. Other common causes of family stress include changes in daily routines, moving to a new house, or expecting another child.
If you feel over-stressed, get help. Talk with your doctor or your child's doctor, or see a counselor. Find support from family and friends, or join a parenting group.
Call 911 right away if you feel you are about to hurt yourself or your child.
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Healthy Habits for Preventing Infection and Illness
Safe food preparation and precautions
You can prevent most cases of food poisoning by being careful when you prepare and store food. Wash your hands and working surfaces while preparing food, cook foods to safe temperatures, and refrigerate foods promptly. Be especially careful when you cook or heat perishable foods, such as eggs, meats, poultry, fish, shellfish, milk, and milk products.
To help prevent food poisoning:
- Prepare foods safely.
- Shop safely.
- Cook foods safely.
- Store foods safely.
- Follow labels on food packaging.
- Serve foods safely.
- Choose restaurants wisely. Be sure they handle food safely.
For more information, see the topic Food Poisoning and Safe Food Handling.
Protect against the spread of illness
Colds and flu can occur at any time of year. These upper respiratory infections (URIs) spread easily. Take extra precautions to help protect your child against these and other viral and bacterial infections.
- Avoid germs and people who are sick. Keep your child away from other people who are obviously ill. And avoid exposing your child to a large crowd, especially when an easily spread illness is going around.
- Wash your hands and wash and disinfect surfaces and toys often to help prevent the spread of germs.
- Be sure your child gets all needed vaccines (immunizations). These vaccines provide important protection for your child against harmful disease.
Visit the doctor regularly
Schedule regular well-child appointments. During these visits, the doctor:
- Gives your child a general physical exam.
- Gives or schedules immunizations.
- Asks you questions about your child's health and development and whether you have any concerns.
Safety Measures Around the Home
You can help protect your child from accidents and injuries by taking general safety measures around your home. Think ahead about what potentially dangerous situations will attract your child. Supervise your child, but keep in mind that constant hovering over children can limit their experiences and confidence. Balancing supervision with safety precautions will help prevent accidents and injuries as well as allow children to explore.
The following are common accidents and injuries that can occur around the house, and some suggestions on how to prevent them.
Preventing falls isn't always easy. Toddlers and young children often move quickly. Their excitement about their mobility and their lack of experience can make them unaware of dangers, such as stairs or hills. Children ages 4 to 5 years anticipate many dangers, but they may not have the physical skills to avoid accidents. Some ways to help prevent falls are to:
- Use sliding gates at both ends of stairways.
- Use safety straps in high chairs and changing tables.
Children ages 2 to 5 years can easily choke on everyday objects and food. Your child needs your supervision even though he or she may be able to eat independently.
- Prevent choking. Your child can choke on things smaller than 1.25 in. (3.2 cm) in diameter and 2.25 in. (5.7 cm) long. These include button batteries and coins. Keep items like these out of your child's reach.
- Learn to recognize signs of choking. For example, a child who is choking can't talk, cry, breathe, or cough.
Strangulation and suffocation
Many household items can strangle a young child. Make sure that loose cords, objects, and furniture don't pose strangling risks.
- Keep cords for blinds and drapes out of reach. Attach cords to mounts that hold them taut, and wrap them around wall brackets. Cords with loops should be cut and equipped with safety tassels.
- Do not use accordion-style gates. Babies and young children can get their heads trapped in the gate and may strangle.
- Make sure that furniture doesn't have cutout portions or other areas that can trap your child's head.
Suffocation is another danger for young children. Teach your child about suffocation and the importance of a safe play area. Pay attention to possible suffocation dangers, such as:
- Trunks of cars. Keep rear fold-down seats closed so children aren't able to climb into the trunk from inside the car. Also, always lock car doors and keep the keys out of sight and out of reach of your child.
- Refrigerators and freezers, even those that aren't in use. If you are storing an old refrigerator or freezer, be sure to take off the door.
- Plastic sacks. Don't let your child play with plastic sacks. Keep them out of reach. Children may put sacks over their head during play, which can lead to suffocation.
- Prevent poisoning from common household items. Identify any products that could harm your child when eaten or inhaled. Store these products out of your child's reach. If you have a possible poisoning emergency, call 1-800-222-1222. For more information, see the topic Poisoning.
- Prevent lead poisoning. Children may chew on contaminated paint flakes, painted objects, or toys. Homes built before 1978 may still have lead paint on walls and other surfaces. For more information about lead, see the topic Lead Poisoning.
- Prevent carbon monoxide poisoning (CO). Use a carbon monoxide detector, and have your furnace checked each year. High CO levels quickly affect young children because of their small size. For more information, see the topic Carbon Monoxide Poisoning.
- Avoid secondhand smoke, mold, and other indoor air pollutants. They can affect health and safety. For more information, see Tips for Reducing Indoor Pollutants in Your Home.
Fire hazards and burns
- Prevent household fires by having and maintaining smoke detectors, planning and practicing escape routes, and teaching your child basic fire safety skills. Children ages 2 to 5 are often curious about fire. Warn your child about the dangers of fire, and explain why only grown-ups are allowed to use it.
- Prevent burns. Serious burns are most often caused by heat, electricity, or chemicals. Prevent burn injuries to your child by identifying dangers in your home and removing them or blocking your child's access to them. For more information, see the topic Burns.
- Enjoy fireworks from a distance. Fireworks injure children each summer. Children can also get burns from using and being around firecrackers and sparklers.
Guns and other weapons
Gun and firearm safety measures should be established for all households and especially those where children live or visit. Keep all guns and firearms in a locked area, unloaded, and out of reach of children. Also, store knives (even kitchen knives), swords, and other weapons safely out of reach.
Teach children how to interact with pets. Teach them to never tease animals or bother them while they are eating. Explain that animals can sometimes hurt you. Also be sure to train your own pets and keep them healthy.
Drowning is a leading cause of death in young children. Help prevent drowning by following these tips:
- Supervise all baths at all times. Always stay within arm's reach of your child. Never leave your child alone in the tub—even with an older sibling.
- Deal with water hazards, and teach swimming safety. Teach your child the rules of safe swimming and how to swim. Empty all buckets and coolers when not in use. Keep toilet lids down, and consider securing them with safety latches.
- Keep pools and hot tubs safe. Don't let your child swim alone. If you have your own pool or pond, keep it fenced. Teach your child that hot tubs aren't places to play. Consider making them off-limits.
- Keep children away from irrigation canals. Don't let your child play in or near irrigation canals.
In addition to these precautions, learn first aid and CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation). Knowing these skills can make the difference between life and death in an emergency situation. For more information, see the topic Dealing With Emergencies.
Safety Measures Outside the Home
You can't protect your child from every danger that he or she can possibly encounter outside the home. But you can equip your child with some basic safety rules and precautions. Let your child's natural surroundings give you ideas for general training to help prepare your child for a variety of situations he or she may face.
To help avoid accidents, injuries, and unsafe situations outside the home, establish and review basic rules before outings. Reinforce the rules often. And let other caregivers know about them.
Basic safety precautions
- Help your child be safe in and around motor vehicles. Teach your child basic rules about the dangers of streets, cars, and other vehicles.
- Help prevent child abduction. Teach children to be cautious of strangers, and teach them how to react when they feel they are threatened. Remember that most children who are abducted aren't taken by strangers but rather by a parent, a relative, a family friend, or an acquaintance.
- Protect your child from too much sun or heat when outdoors. If your child will be outside from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., have your child stay in the shade or cover up with a hat and clothing and wear UV-blocking sunglasses. Put broad-spectrum sunscreen (SPF 30 or higher) on any exposed skin, even when it's cloudy. Watch for heat exhaustion. Don't keep your child out in warm weather for long periods. For more information, see Sunburn and Heat-Related Illnesses.
- Help your child prevent insect stings and spider bites. Use insect repellents, and have your child wear closed shoes, socks, and clothes that fully cover his or her body when outdoors. For more information, see Insect Bites and Stings and Spider Bites.
- Keep your child safe on the playground. Make sure all play equipment is safe, in good repair, and appropriate for your child's age. Closely supervise all young children while they are playing on any equipment.
Before your child visits an unfamiliar home, ask whether you need to be aware of any dangerous areas, weapons in the home, pets, or other safety issues. Also, it is always a good idea to see the household for yourself. Don't be afraid to voice any concerns you have about safety. You are ultimately responsible for protecting your child.
Choosing child care
Before enrolling your child in day care, evaluate the environment and talk with the care providers. Ask questions about their safety guidelines. Identify any hazards, and ask how they are handled. For more information, see the topic Choosing Child Care.
Going along for the ride: Exercising caution
Many parents and caregivers want to share their favorite activities with their young children. This can help build common interests and appreciation for exercise and other pursuits. Be sure, though, to recognize the safety issues related to these activities. Remember that your child's comfort and safety are most important.
- Always use a car seat and have your child ride in the backseat of your car. Car accidents are the leading cause of death and injury in young children. Follow basic guidelines established by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). See the AAP website at www.healthychildren.org.
- Never leave your child alone in a car. Heat inside the car and other factors could cause long-lasting injury—or death—in a matter of minutes. Keeping the car windows down won't protect your child in hot or warm weather. Other injuries could also occur from a child getting stuck in the trunk or setting the car in motion.
- Keep your child safe in strollers and carts. Use the safety straps, and follow the printed instructions. It's safest not to put children in shopping carts at all.
- Use extra caution when riding bikes and tricycles. Make sure that you and your child always wear helmets and practice safe riding habits, such as avoiding busy streets. Bike only during daylight hours.
- If your child rides a scooter, watch him or her at all times. Don't let your child ride near traffic. And have your child wear a helmet, knee pads, and elbow pads. Wait until your child is a little older before you teach skateboard safety. It's not safe for children younger than 5 to use skateboards.
- Monitor air pollution before outdoor activities. Children's lungs are especially sensitive to pollution. You can check your newspaper or local weather station for details about air pollution levels.
Connection between your well-being and child safety
Taking care of yourself is a vital part of keeping your child safe. Although accidents can occur at any time, many happen during times of excess stress, such as when:
- Parents and children are hungry and tired.
- Another baby is expected.
- Relationship problems develop.
- Major changes in the routine or environment occur, such as when a child's caregiver changes, when the family is moving, or when a parent leaves because of military duty.
All parents have times when they feel exhausted, frustrated, angry, sad, or overwhelmed. This is a normal part of being human and a parent. But if these feelings become too much for you to handle alone, keep your child safe by getting help. For example, when your emotions are too much for you to handle alone, you may not have the energy or desire to watch your child as closely as you should. And some parents injure their children when their emotions cause them to shake, hit, or push them.
Call 911 right away if you feel that you are about to injure yourself or your child.
Places to go for help include:
- Your family health professional (such as a family medicine doctor or pediatrician).
- A licensed mental health counselor.
- Your local hospital.
- Parenting organizations.
For more information on physical harm to children, see the topic:
For more information on handling difficult emotions, see the topic:
Other Works Consulted
- American Academy of Pediatrics (2009). Keeping your child safe. In SP Shevlov et al., eds., Caring for Your Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age 5, 5th ed., pp. 457–506. New York: Bantam.
- Committee on Injury and Poison Prevention, American Academy of Pediatrics (2002, reaffirmed 2005). Policy statement: Skateboard and scooter injuries. Pediatrics, 109(3): 542–543.
- Rivara FP, Grossman DC (2011). Injury control. In RM Kliegman et al., eds., Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics, 19th ed., pp. 17–25. Philadelphia: Saunders Elsevier.
- Treitz M, et al. (2014). Ambulatory and office pediatrics. In WW Hay Jr et al., eds., Current Diagnosis and Treatment: Pediatrics, 22nd ed., pp. 248–270. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Window Covering Safety Council (accessed August 2012). Basic cord safety. Available online: http://www.windowcoverings.org/about-2.
Current as of: August 21, 2019
Author: Healthwise Staff
John Pope MD - Pediatrics
E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Thomas Emmett Francoeur MD MDCM, CSPQ, FRCPC - Pediatrics
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