Toddler-proofing the already fire-proofed Christmas tree is as critical a part of the holiday preparation process as putting the angel on top — at least until children are in kindergarten. That’s because, while the holiday season is fun for the littlest kids, all those magical Christmas decorations can pose serious risks, specifically for choking and poisoning. So hang stockings and ornaments both with great care to ensure that EMS does not have to come there.
Also, get rid of the tinsel. Immediately.
You might think such heli-parenting paranoia flies in the face of the holiday spirit, but the annual threat is, unfortunately, very real. Toddlers and infants see tinsel, lights, and ornaments as a glorious curiosity and children in this age group, like puppies and TV chefs, explore with their mouths. And it definitely doesn’t help that many ornaments are intentionally made to resemble food. “Choking hazards from birth to 3 are always a concern,” says pediatrician Shelly Flais, M.D., author of Raising Twins: Parenting Multiples from Pregnancy Through the School Years. “Different ornaments often look like gingerbread or candy canes.”
That goes for Christmas lights too. Bite on those and you get broken bulbs in addition to a threat of electric shock — not to mention entanglement from the cords. So clearly, the Tannenbaum is a threat from top to bottom. Fortunately, there are ways to mitigate risk.
Childproof Christmas Tree Checklist
- Use a Christmas tree gate — baby gates or of child-safe indoor fencing will do — to create a strong barrier between the children and the tree.
- If the tree is placed up high, make sure it’s secured and on a surface that can’t be tipped or pushed over.
- If your tree is in the open, skip lighting and decorate with rugged unbreakable ornaments.
- Skip the tinsel, which can be a choking hazard.
- Trees are fire safety hazards, so keep it well-watered and away from heat sources.
- If in doubt, skip the tree this year. Next year — just one year! — your toddler will be older and wiser and less likely to eat light bulbs.
First, you can opt for a smaller tree placed out of reach — just be sure to be wary of dangling cords or pine being pulled down by a curious reach. Christmas tree gates are another great option to keep baby away from the boughs — cheap kennel fencing, baby gates, furniture placement, or some nice-looking indoor white wooden gates can all do the trick. But all of these should be firmly secured.
Ornaments and lights are another fairly unavoidable hazard. A really massive tree decorated only up top will look strange and entice climbing. If your toddler is extra curious, consider alternative decorations. “One year I even skipped ornaments and I just tied bows to the branches,” Flais says. “I found a nice plaid ribbon and just tied bows on the branches.”
Trees themselves can be dangerous for the whole family; dry pine needles are exceptionally flammable. According to the National Fire Prevention Association, Christmas tree fires accounted for an average of 210 structure fires a year from 2010-2014. Though Christmas tree fires may not be common, they are much more likely to be fatal than other structure fires, with an average of six deaths a year during the same period.
The best way to minimize the risk is to select a fresh tree and water it, often. Fresh trees have green, pliant needles that do not come out easily and a trunk that shows sticky resin. Cutting the trunk shorter by a few inches can improve water absorption and slow down drying. Parents should always set trees up away from fireplaces, radiators, or heaters; they can be ignition sources as well as speed up drying.
This all leads us to a point that is probably obvious by now: If you have a kid who looks for trouble, you maybe want to forgo the tree altogether. It goes against a lot of expectations of the holidays, but it solves a lot of potential problems, too. Also, it isn’t permanent.
“People think they can never have a Christmas tree again. No! You can,” explains Flais. “It’s just a couple of years. Time flies.”
Skipping the tree keeps babies safe. It keeps grandma’s heirloom ornaments safe. It reduces mom’s and dad’s stress. Babies and toddlers don’t really need a tree to appreciate Christmas, anyway. There are enough new stimuli to mark this as a unique occasion. Besides, infants and toddlers will receive more emotional nourishment from a joyous and gentle holiday atmosphere than a constant barrage of corrections from stressed-out parents.
“A lot of people consider the holidays to be stressful,” says Flais. “Think of it as doing yourself a favor. You’re just eliminating another source of problems.”