Christmas trees aren’t very friendly to infants and toddlers. The holiday season is awesome, of course, but those new decorations can undo a lot of diligent baby proofing. Even if parents have already survived a Christmas or two with an older child, it’s no guarantee they have their childproofing game on point. Different kids have different personalities, after all. It’s not always as self-evident as it seems.
Infants are already susceptible to choking, due to their natural mode of investigation via sticking things into their piehole. But toddlers are particularly susceptible to choking hazards during the holidays. Tinsel, lights, ornaments — anything on a tree and within reach of a child may end up in their mouth.
“Choking hazards from birth to three 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.”
Christmas lights are also a concern. They may contain small amounts of lead or pose a threat of laceration from broken bulbs in addition to a threat of electric shock or entanglement. So clearly, the Tannenbaum is a threat from top to bottom (babies, like pets, love that tree water).
An obvious strategy is to forgo the tree altogether or create a flat, visual representation of one with construction paper and glitter that can be affixed to a wall. Families can also opt for a smaller tree placed out of reach, but need to be wary of pine being pulled down by a curious reach. Parents might also opt for cheap kennel fencing, baby gates, or even furniture placement to kee a baby at bay. But all of these should be firmly secured. Finally, it’s important to know that ornaments and lights aren’t the only way to decorate a tree.
“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.”
Aside from just babies, trees 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 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. Even if no one is injured or killed in a house fire, it’s a pretty efficient way to ruin a holiday.
There are ways to minimize this risk; selecting a fresh tree is key. 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. The water level in the stand should be checked daily and kept filled.
Even if parents opt for the more convenient option of the synthetic tree, they should check to make sure it is fire resistant. But there is another option, one that most parents may find too extreme: skip the tree altogether. It goes against a lot of expectations of the holidays, but it solves a lot of potential problems, too. And 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.”
It’s something to consider. It keeps babies safe. It keeps grandma’s heirloom ornaments safe. It reduces mom and dad’s stress, who have their own safety concerns. 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. Nor will they be able to remember details particularly well. 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.”