Toddlers and Furniture Tip-Over Risk

The combination of toddlers and furniture such as dressers and bookshelves that are not properly secured can make for a particularly concerning and potentially dangerous combination. That’s why I was more than happy to share some parenting and “toddler brain” insights with Consumer Reports’ Rachel Rabkin Peachman about this very important safety topic.

Nov 5, 2018 by Rachel Rabkin Peachman

After her 2-year-old son, Shane, died from a furniture tip-over in 2011, Lisa Siefert started attending health fairs and other events to hand out furniture wall anchor kits – delicate-looking hardware packaged like picture hooks that are meant to secure furniture to walls.

She was tormented by the idea that families with small children didn’t know about this hidden tip-over danger in their homes. So spreading the word became her life’s work. Now, six years after……(read more)

Car Seat Directions: Don’t Rush Switching Your Child to a Forward-Facing Car Seat

Originally posted on my US News & World Report parenting blog (March 19)

IN THE WORLD OF parenting, we’re conditioned to treat anticipated transitions as cause for celebration – like when a child reaches a new developmental milestone or advances to the next grade. And we’re led to believe that sooner is usually better (think potty training). But this way of thinking has its limits and it’s particularly problematic when it comes to car seats, where the safest approach is to take time with each transition.

Whether you’re moving a child from a rear-facing seat to one that’s forward-facing or a child is “graduating” from a five-point harness to a booster seat and ultimately to vehicle seat belt use – it’s best to make these changes as late as possible. The same holds true, by the way, for moving older children from the back seat to the front – which, in case you’re wondering, isn’t generally recommended before age 13.

With respect to transitioning from rear-facing to forward-facing, the consensus of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Safe Kids Worldwide and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is that children are safest when kept rear-facing as long as possible within the height and weight limits of their rear-facing car seat, which typically translates to age 2 if not older. As with most aspects of parenting, however, actually committing to keep toddlers rear-facing longer and following through is easier said than done.

I was recently reminded of the additional practical challenges involved when a senator in my home state of Nebraska introduced new and improved car seat legislation requiring appropriate child safety seat use up until the age of 8 (instead of 6), rear-facing until the age of 2, and keeping children under the age of 13 in the back seat. In the spirit of helping this important bill become law, I made my way to the state capitol a couple of weeks ago armed with nearly two decades worth of professional insights and information about the life-saving benefits of the proposed changes.


Kids & Cars Seats, Why Safety Shouldn’t Take a Back Seat When You Fasten in Your Kids

Originally posted on my US News & World Report parenting blog (Sept 22)

THIS WEEK HAPPENS TO BE Child Passenger Safety Week – a week specifically dedicated to ensuring that parents, as well as anyone else who transports children, use the correct car seat and properly buckle kids in each and every time children ride in motor vehicles.

As a pediatrician with 15 years of experience being a child passenger safety technician and instructor, I am most definitely a fan of this week-long focus. That’s because the stakes are high when it comes to buckling kids in properly. Motor vehicle-related injuries continue to be a leading cause of death for children in the U.S.; and buckling up is the best way to save lives and reduce injuries. Child safety seats, when used correctly, can reduce the risk of death by as much as 71 percent, according to

Yet, despite all we know about the importance of passenger safety, nearly three-fourths of cars seats are still not being used or installed correctly.

Adding to this problem is a second challenge that’s by no means exclusive to car seats, but which stands to seriously thwart our collective efforts to keep our children safe in them. I’m talking about the culture of “mommy-shaming.”

Consider the photo that just a few months ago managed to capture the attention of the parenting world. The photo I’m referring to wasn’t just any picture shared by any mom. It was a snapshot of the then 18-month-old son of pop culture royalty Kim Kardashian and Kanye West. It also just so happened to be a shot of a not-yet-2-year-old strapped into a car seat that was facing forward, rather than rear-facing seat as generally recommended for a child of this age.

The parenting and media response was fast and furious. While the virtual dust has settled, I still feel the need to weigh in on a couple lingering aspects of this cause celebre.

Read more….

Tending to Tummy Time Troubles & Going Back to Sleep

Back-sleeping and tummy time are common phrases in today’s parenting lexicon. Yet that hasn’t always been the case.

The Back to Sleep Campaign – primarily responsible for the switch to back-sleeping babies and related recommendations for tummy time while awake — was launched in the mid-1990s to educate parents, caregivers and health care providers about ways to reduce the risk for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

At the time, this represented a big parenting shift. Before this public education campaign, parents had little reason to think twice about putting babies to sleep on their bellies. Generations of parents routinely did so. But with compelling evidence to support the Back to Sleep campaign’s primary message — that placing babies to sleep on their backs reduces the risk for SIDS (sometimes referred to as “crib death”) – great progress was made in helping babies sleep safer.

Just how much progress? It is estimated that since the campaign started, the percentage of infants place on their backs increased dramatically while at the same time, overall SIDS rates decreased by more than half.  As far as public health campaigns go, the Back to Sleep campaign is a hands-down success, and the benefits of raising back-sleeping babies and creating safe sleep environments are as clear as ever.

What isn’t always so clear, however, is how parents and caregivers should go about compensating for all this additional time that babies spend sleeping on their backs. By compensating, I mean tummy time. Encouraging back-sleeping babies to spend awake time on their bellies can help stave off the dreaded “positional plagiocephaly,” more understandably referred to as a flat head.

This all might sound fairly straightforward, but I am routinely asked about, interviewed on, and pressed on the subject of tummy time (and the challenges it seems to pose). How much time should babies spend on their tummies? What can one do to encourage tummy time? Is there a certain position babies should be put in? What if they don’t like it?

My first child was born right around the time that the Back to Sleep Campaign was really taking hold. As a pediatrician-in-training, I was well aware of the recommendations, and my daughter didn’t seem to have any problem following them as she established herself as a very good back sleeper. The problem was that I was far more comfortable with the recommendation for her to spend plenty of time on her tummy while awake than she was. Every time I put her on her belly, she’d squawk, cry, push off with her feet, and convince most everyone around her that she was in great distress. I managed to convince myself that her tummy time displays weren’t truly those of a distressed child, so she did get in a sufficient amount of tummy time. I find, though, many parents find tummy time troubling.

Try the following tummy time tips and tricks to help take the pressure off of you as well as your baby!

  • Tummy timing: The key here is quite simple. Just remember back while sleeping and tummy while awake. Despite what you may have been led to believe, there are actually very few rules about how much time a baby needs to spend on his tummy. There’s no need to set a timer, mark your calendar or otherwise formalize what essentially boils down to a simple concept. Just make sure your baby sleeps on his back, and then I commit to trying to make tummy time your baby’s default for hours when he’s awake.
  • Make tummy time a habit. I’m well aware that this may sound like stating the obvious, but it has been my experience – both in dealing with parents and with child care providers – that laying a baby down on her back seems to be somewhat of a force of habit. That’s great if you’re talking about a baby who’s going to sleep. But if it’s on the floor or a playmat, for example, it can take a conscious  effort to switch to the routine of placing an awake baby on her tummy.
  • Understand the benefits. There’s no magic to tummy time. Simply put, until they  learn to roll, sit and crawl, babies generally spend an impressive amount of their time laying down. If all of this down time is spent with pressure being put on the same spot(s) on the back of their skull while it’s still somewhat soft and not fully formed, it’s bound to make an impression. Tummy time not only takes the pressure off, but also allows babies the ability to strengthen their head and neck muscles.
  • Tummy time entertainment. Not all babies need to be entertained in order to be coaxed into spending time on their tummies. Some are perfectly content to lay there and look around. Feel free, however, to help your baby enjoy this new view of the world by placing toys in front of him, help him prop himself up a bit on his elbows, and even lay down facing him so you can look at, talk to, and even sing face-to-face.
  • Tummy time dissenters. If your baby is a tummy time squawker, as mine was, then don’t be discouraged. Make sure you ask yourself whether your baby’s squawks truly count as cries of distress or rather of effort. While my daughter’s cries certainly had my mother-in-law distressed, in reality my squawking little newborn really wasn’t truly upset, she managed to keep her perfect little round head and build up her tolerance for tummy time while all the while mastering the skill of scooting long before she could even roll, and I have some impressive baby videos to prove it.

Originally posted on Omaha World Herald’s Live Well Nebraska

Raising Healthy Kids: Reaching for the Low-Hanging Fruit of Parenthood

For good or for bad, parents today are faced with the fast paced nature of both the real world and a virtual one. Much of the virtually continuous stream of information, videos, tweets and texts we receive on a 24/7 basis relate in one way or another to what we can, should, and/or are expected to do to be good parents. And let’s face it – keeping up with all of the modern-day parenting advice would be hard enough even if all of it was fact-checked for us. Unfortunately, this is not often the case, as much of what we hear, see and read is unfiltered, potentially unfounded, and confusingly contradictory.

Having spent much of my professional career as a pediatrician increasingly committed to making sense of pediatric and parenting advice in both of these worlds, I have found that what parents often want to know from me is simply how to filter the good from the bad and separate fact from fiction.

Knowing that you all are probably as busy as I am, I decided that this week I would distill down to as few words as possible the handful of things I consider to be some of the most well-founded, important things you can do as parents can do to make your kids smarter, safer and healthier. In other words, the following is my list of the “low-hanging fruit” of parenting.

Move more. I feel the need to say this because it’s painfully obvious that it has become incredibly easy for our children (and for us) to barely move in the course of any given day. Whether it’s walking instead of driving to school (or work) or taking an evening walk around the block, getting out of the car instead of rolling your way through drive-thrus, or signing up for organized sports, joining a gym, or participating in more vigorous daily exercise regimens – every step counts towards an healthier life style.

Use restraint. Literally speaking, I’m simply referring to the use of car seats and seat belts in motor vehicles. With motor vehicle crashes clearly identified as the number one cause of death in children, and the correct use of car seats and seatbelts clearly shown to have a huge impact on reducing motor vehicle-related injuries and deaths, taking the time to buckle up comes with a huge return on your parenting investment.

Read. For every parent who has ever asked my opinion on what they can do to help their children become smarter, excel in school, or head down a path of success, reading always factors in to my answer. Reading aloud to babies, toddlers, young children and teens alike not only fosters improved language skills, but also a love of reading that will serve children well for their lifetime. One of my favorite sayings to emphasize this point is that children spend the first few years of school learning to read, and the rest of their lives reading to learn.

Sleep. For parents of infants and young children, this conversation usually focuses on getting children to fall asleep, stay asleep, sleep in their own room, and do so without requiring repeated interventions. For parents of teens, the conversation often shifts to too little and too late. But regardless of your child’s age, it is becoming convincingly clear that instilling your child with good sleep habits is not only a good thing for your own chances of getting a good night’s sleep, but your child’s overall health and well-being.

Wash your hands…and while you’re at it, remember to cover your cough (preferably with your arm rather than your hand) and vaccinate. The fact of the matter is that while modern day science and research is continually coming up with new medicines, treatments and technologies to improve our families’ health and more effectively treat disease, the simple act of teaching our children to wash their hands (which includes committing to consistently doing so ourselves) remains one of the single most effective things we can do to limit the spread of disease. So is protecting against all of the vaccine preventable diseases.

Originally posted on Omaha World Herald’s Live Well Nebraska

Helping Children Live Their Lives in a Post 9/11 World

As we near the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, I find myself, like so many others, reflecting on where I was at the time of the attacks and vividly recalling how feelings ranging from disbelief and overwhelming sadness to anger, fear and unity all but overwhelmed our country in the subsequent days, weeks, and months that followed.

In the hours immediately following the attacks, I have a particularly clear memory of exactly what I was thinking and feeling, if for no other reason than I hurriedly but carefully wrote down my thoughts and any words of parental support I could come up with in an article that was distributed around the country entitled Helping Your Children Cope with the News of Reported Terrorist Attacks. In the years since, I have repeatedly been asked about (and struck by) what I wrote that morning, not only because I too was feeling an overwhelming sense of loss, but because the steps I outlined for parents to take in order to comfort their children and help them make some sense of the tragedy apply as much today as they did back then.

At the time, I wrote that no matter how upset we are by the grim reality that our country is not as safe as we would like to believe it to be, we have to offer our children some semblance of security in their world. The fact of the matter is that I believe this is what we, as parents, should always strive to do. To that end, I wanted to share with you what I wrote so you can continue to offer your children a sense of security each and every day.

  • Immediate reassurance. In the event of any tragedy, start by emphasizing your child’s personal safety and the safety of loved ones. Let your child see, hear, and tangibly feel a sense of security that comes from knowing that he/she is safely surrounded by adults who care about him/her. At the time I wrote this, I recommended letting children talk to relatives on the phone or reach out by email. Ten years later and I firmly believe it shouldn’t take a national or even a personal family tragedy for us to remember how important our family and loved ones are to us and reach out, whether by phone, email, text, Skype, Facebook, or the good old fashioned way…in person.
  • A sense of structure. Even before the events of September 11th,  I was one of a vast majority of pediatricians, including Dr. Benjamin Spock himself, who expressed concern about the inappropriate and potentially harmful violent images children were being exposed to – from prime time television to Saturday morning cartoons and the evening news. Perhaps one of the most vivid memories I have of the morning of September 11th, 2001 is that of watching the televised coverage of people in the World Trade Center Towers jumping to their deaths. While these horrifying images may well have been permanently emblazoned in my mind had I only witness them once, the fact that they, along with all of the equally tragic and impossible-to-comprehend events of the day were repeated over and over and over again in the twenty-four-hour a day newscasts and on the internet made it impossible for me, as an adult, to escape. I certainly understood (and still recognize) the feeling of needing to leave the television set on and watch events unfold. But my cautionary advice to parents was and is that children (and all people, for that matter) are more able to handle shocking news when it is not immediate in time and when it is presented in print, rather than on television. Now think about where we are today. The next couple of days are sure to be filled with a lot of re-living of the events of that day ten years ago. And while I agree that we should never forget, and that we should honor those whose lives were lost, it’s as important today as it was ten years ago to protect our children from having to repeatedly witness and re-live the horrors of the day. Let me also just say that I believe that the world would be a better place if we all made a concerted effort to limit the amount of violence, so often disguised as entertainment, that our children are exposed to each of the other 364 days of the year as well.
  • Showing emotions and patience. Regardless of the circumstances and even if they are too young to fully understand, from a very early age children are acutely aware of the emotional state of their parents and loved ones. My advice to parents now is the same as it was then: It’s fine to let children know that you are upset and sad, but make sure to make it clear that you’re not upset with them. Also, as with any tragedy, loss, or change in routing, don’t be surprised if children show signs of distress. Whether in the form of fussiness, fear, nightmares, or tantrums, all of these reactions are normal and are best handled with patience.
  • Mutual support. When our country was telling from the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, it only made sense to focus on our national unity and resolve and encourage parents to seek the support and solace they needed in order to be able to be calm and confident with their children. The fact of the matter is that raising our children to be happy, healthy, and safe and with a sense of belonging to a bigger community is what we should all be striving for. While raising a child may not technically require a village, having a community of support sure can help. It is my sincere hope that we all look for ways to teach tolerance, come together, and support each other.

And that leads me to one of the most important things we need to remember and teach our children as we reflect on the past ten years, and that’s the importance of teaching respect for differences and tolerance. I was recently reminded of the fact that in the period following 9/11, there was a disturbing backlash agains Muslims that sadly does not seem to have fully subsided. Despite the fact that the religion of Islam preaches peace, justice, and tolerance, and those who follow the religion of Islam are estimated to make up more than one-fifth of the world’s population, there are still many Americans who continue to direct their post-9/11 anger and distrust towards all Muslims. Even here in Omaha, a close friend recently told me that her own daughter was no longer allowed to be in contact with another family’s son, simply because her father was an “Arab Muslim.” In response to this sadly racist statement, I suggest that in remembering what were the most tragic attacks to ever occur on American soil, we also remind ourselves and our children that these attacks were carried out by extremists and not representatives of any certain color, religion or race.

Originally posted on Omaha World Herald’s Live Well Nebraska

From Earthquakes to Outbreaks: Keeping Kids Safe

In the wake of this week’s earthquake, I’ve noticed that there’s been lots of subsequent commentary – from TV to Twitter feeds – about just how uneducated and unprepared east coasters were/are when it comes to earthquakes. This has been repeatedly noted to be in stark contrast to anyone and everyone who has ever lived on the west coast, for whom the eventuality of earthquakes and the associated disaster preparedness has become an accepted way of life. To be fair, I must say that it certainly seems understandable, given what most of the general public has been taught about plate tectonics, that we cut those east coasters who mistakenly ran out of buildings rather than hiding under their desks some slack.

That said, I also firmly believe this week’s unlikely earthquake has the potential to serve as a powerful teachable moment. No, the lesson learned isn’t that everyone on the east coast needs to go take all the same precautionary measures as those who live on known fault lines, or that any of us in the Midwest (with a few geographic exceptions) need to hurriedly sign up for a remedial course on “what to do in the event that an earthquake hits the heartland.” Rather, all the talk about earthquake preparedness (or its lack thereof) gives me the opportunity to bring up many important instances in which parents can and should expect the unexpected and plan accordingly. As a pediatrician, I can think of countless ways in which parents can better insure their children’s health and well-being by simply understanding the risks and planning ahead. For the sake of today’s blog, I offer you the following examples.

Tornados. For us Midwesterners, tornadoes are naturally of much greater relevance than earthquakes or hurricanes. And just as bolting one’s bookshelves to the wall may be foreign to us, I’m not sure how many Californians would recognize the meaning of a tornado siren and know to immediately head to the center of an interior room on the lowest level of a building away from corners, windows, doors and outside walls if a pre-designated storm shelter or basement isn’t available. All of the 250 students and staff at my child care center know what to do, however, as we faithfully practice each month getting everyone down into our custom-built basement storm shelter…all in 8 minutes or less. Similarly, my family has a game plan in place at home. Now would be a good time to make sure yours does as well.

Fire. Although tens of thousands of Americans die or are injured in fires each year – with a vast majority caused by house fires – I consider my family fortunate to have never personally experienced one. And I certainly never hope to. I don’t smoke, so the likelihood of cigarette ashes or a lighter starting a fire aren’t of concern. Nor are lit candles or the flames from a gas stove, since we don’t have either in our house. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t bother to take extra precautions, because I do. I have smoke detectors installed on every level of my home, and yes….they all have new batteries in them that I make a concerted effort to replace every year. These and other home prevention measures require minimal time or expense, and are more than worth the effort. While you’re at it, I also suggest inquiring as to what fire prevention and response measures your children’s child care and/or school have in place, and make sure they include regular fire drills and appropriately placed fire extinguishers/ sprinkler systems.

Vaccine-preventable diseases. Natural disasters, as well as man-made ones, shouldn’t be the only focus of your preventive efforts. Considered to be one of the greatest public health discoveries of all time, vaccines now offer us the opportunity to prevent diseases that in generations past claimed the lives of millions. Now I know that the threat of a disease such as polio (which until recently was all but eradicated) may not seem as real as it used to in the days of iron lungs, but the fact of the matter is that the threat of vaccine-preventable-diseases has proven itself time and again to be anything but hypothetical. And the likelihood of an outbreak of measles or pertussis, for example, is much greater than, say, an earthquake on the east coast, given that exposure to these diseases is only a plane-ride away.

Transportation Safety. I won’t belabor the importance of parents being committed to understanding, promoting, and enforcing transportation safety principles, except to say that injury-prevention innovations such as bike helmets, car seats and seatbelts should be considered worth their weight in gold. I don’t care if you’re the world’s best driver and your child is the world’s safest bike rider – you still need to prepare for the unexpected. I am also well aware that even if I convince you, you may well be faced with resistance from your children, as I have three helmet-resistant children of my own (who nevertheless have always been required to wear a bike helmet since the day they were introduced to tricycles). While lots of kids loudly and often successfully protest the use of booster seats, mine didn’t, because they knew it would fall on deaf ears.

Given that there are many, many more worthwhile preventive measures that you can take, I hope that your own pediatricians continue sharing these and other tips with you. I also want to leave you with several useful resources that will allow you to hope for the best for your children while pro-actively avoiding the worst.

Originally posted on Omaha World Herald’s Live Well Nebraska

I would like to start this commentary by assuring you that I really am a fun parent. I’m not a germaphobe despite the fact that I majored in cellular molecular biology, I don’t wrap my children in bubble wrap or tell them not to run for fear that they’ll get hurt and their bedroom walls are not padded despite my ongoing commitment to injury prevention.

Okay, so now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, I’ll also tell you that my husband is convinced that all of you who read my column are going to start thinking of me as Debbie Downer if I keep writing about all of the dangers of childhood – a concern I fully understand. The problem is that I just can’t help it. Not when I know that unintentional injuries have long been and continue to be the leading cause of death for children under the age of fourteen, and that there’s a lot that we, as parents, can do to prevent these injuries from happening.

While I could take my pick of summertime safety topics to write about (and probably will over the upcoming weeks, since there’s no shortage of them), right now I think it’s well worth the time to focus on the fact that there’s going to be a whole lot of fireworks on the horizon in the not too distant future. In fact, in my west Omaha neighborhood, they’re already a nightly event.

Each year, without fail, I cringe at the thought of the potential dangers of fireworks. And just saying that makes me sound like my mother. As a kid, I admit I had a very hard time listening to my pediatrician mother explain the dangers of fireworks. And not just the “dangerous” kind, but essentially all of the fireworks that every other neighborhood child got to light and enjoy in peace without hearing about how many people lose eyes and limbs to fireworks. Back then, my siblings and I weren’t allowed to light anything but sparklers.

Knowing what I know now, even sparklers concern me. Of course, saying that alone makes me a bit of a social outcast, given that most families I know are out buying hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars worth of fireworks that they fully intend to fire off together in the front driveway. Now that non-profits are allowed to sell them right here in Nebraska, I can only imagine how many more amateur fireworks we stand to witness in the next few days and weeks. I only hope this increased availability doesn’t translate into an increase in fireworks related injuries.

For my part, I figured it might help if I shared a couple of commonly used expressions that I think are particularly relevant to the Fourth of July weekend celebrations. It is my sincere hope that they will give you pause, and then set you up to enjoy a fun-filled and safer family holiday weekend.

It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye…and people actually do. According to my mother, it was the experience of being on call on the Fourth of July in the pediatric emergency room in Boston and seeing a child brought in who had been blinded by an exploding firework that shaped her future opinions of them. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, somewhere on the order of seven to nine thousand people a year are treated in hospital emergency rooms for fireworks-related injuries.

You’re playing with fire….literally. While you’d like to think that this would be obvious – akin to letting children stick their hands in the oven, for example – this particular burn risk seems to be lost on some otherwise safety-minded parents as soon as their children start begging to go out and join the fun of lighting explosives. And if you think I’m just talking about the more obviously dangerous explosive kinds of fireworks, consider the fact that even good old, presumably benign sparklers burn at temperatures of about 2000 degrees and are responsible for an estimated one third of fireworks-related injuries to children under age 5.

You’re throwing caution to the wind – definitely in a figurative sense, but also in a very literal sense. It makes absolutely no sense to me that one of the most well-accepted rituals involved in celebrating our country’s independence is the liberation of lit explosives into the wind in the hopes that they entertain rather than fall on a neighbors roof, tree, or other highly flammable objects.

And finally, knowing full well that there will still be lots of families lighting lots of fireworks in the upcoming days, I’ll leave you with some important fireworks safety tips from the Consumer Product Safety Commission:

  • Never allow young children to play with or ignite fireworks.
  • Avoid buying fireworks that are packaged in brown paper because this is often a sign that the fireworks were made for professional displays and that they could pose a danger to consumers.
  • Always have an adult supervise fireworks activities. Parents don’t realize that young children suffer injuries from from sparklers, [which are] hot enough to melt some metals.
  • Never place any part of your body directly over a fireworks device when lighting the fuse. Back up to a safe distance immediately after lighting fireworks.
  • Never try to re-light or pick up fireworks that have not ignited fully.
  • Never point or throw fireworks at another person.
  • Keep a bucket of water or a garden hose handy in case of fire or other mishap.
  • Light fireworks one at a time, then move back quickly.
  • Never carry fireworks in a pocket or shoot them off in metal or glass containers.
  • After fireworks complete their burning, douse the spent device with plenty of water from a bucket or hose before discarding it to prevent a trash fire.

Originally posted on Omaha World Herald’s Live Well Nebraska

Kids & Cars: Keeping Your Child Safe In and Around Cars

I spent most of last week on the road – first in Orlando at the International Reading Association Conference and then in Chicago participating in a Twitter Party where I was graciously allotted 140 characters per answer to address the challenges of feeding babies. Given that I routinely scan the Omaha World Herald each morning in search of current, locally-relevant parenting topics to blog about, by mid-week I was feeling more than a bit removed and had all but decided to focus on the benefits of early literacy or feeding babies.

That is, until I picked up last Wednesday’s USAToday. What scant details I found condensed into a tiny little paragraph about a baby in Omaha recovering after being rescued from a hot car left me cringing at what might have happened right here in my home town. After returning to Omaha, I not only picked up additional details of this narrowly averted tragedy, but also learned of another child who was recently and inadvertently left in a car while family members went to church.

Even though this isn’t Child Passenger Safety Week (which, for future reference, is planned for the week of September 18th this year), and even though I just wrote about important safety considerations related to teen driving last week, this is as good a time as any to discuss additional risks associated with kids and cars. Because the fact of the matter is that although last week’s two incidents both occurred right here in Omaha, incidents like these can happen anywhere and to anyone. It is my hope that they (along with this blog) will serve as a powerful reminder to everyone of just how important it is to protect against these known dangers involving kids and cars.

Hot cars. Within a mere matter of minutes, the temperature inside a car can be twenty degrees higher than the outside temperature. Within an half an hour, that number can reach 30 degrees higher than outside. That means that even a 70 degree spring day can quickly become dangerous for children left in cars. It also explains why an average of 38 children die each year from heat stroke after being left unattended. That thought alone should be enough to make all parents break into a cold sweat. Now factor in that children can’t control their core body temperatures nearly as well as adults, and it puts them at risk three to five times faster.

Last week’s incident, however, did not tell the whole story. While it is my understanding that that infant was intentionally left in the vehicle, this is not always the case. In many instances, parents or caregivers simply forget that there is an infant in the back, especially when they are off routine, tired, and/or in a hurry. I have yet to meet a parent who isn’t off routine, tired, and/or in a hurry at least on occasion. To help safeguard yourself from ever having this happen to you, always check the back seat of your car. Consider putting a small reminder, such as a stuffed animal, on the front seat whenever you put a child in the back, or put your purse (or some other easily remembered object) safely secured in the back seat along with your child. I also recommend that you read the Pulitzer Prize winning Washington Post article, Fatal Distraction.

Children left unattended in cars. Power windows, trunk entrapment, and accidentally shifted gears are but a few of the lurking dangers when children are left unattended in cars. Regardless of whether you’re talking about children playing in parked cars in the driveway or being left in a car while you run into a store – you’re talking trouble. While a child left alone in a car doesn’t guarantee a disastrous outcome, it certainly has all the makings of one – even when the temperature is not a factor.

With three children of my own, believe me when I say that I am well aware of just how tempting it can be to run in and out of a store without unbuckling, unloading, re-loading and re-buckling up young kids. Yet I never allowed myself to do so, and neither should you – especially if you happen to have children under the age of 7. While there are currently only 18 states with laws against leaving a child unattended, Nebraska happens to be one of them, with a penalty of up to three months of prison time or $500 or both.

Backovers. Young kids and big cars certainly seem to be commonplace these days, but this combination of convenience can quickly turn lethal when small children behind vehicles aren’t visible to those behind the wheel. The result is an estimated 50 children being backed over each week in the United States, with at least 2 of them dying from their injuries. While the death of any child is tragic, even more tragic is the fact that a vast majority of the time backovers occur when a parent or close family member is behind the wheel.

One of the most publicly heartbreaking examples occurred two years ago, when Grammy-winning Christian music singer Steven Curtis Chapman’s youngest daughter was run over and killed by her brother as he backed the family SUV out of the driveway.

So what’s a parent to do? First, be aware of the risks. Every car has a blind spot that stands to make anything behind it – including a child – out of sight to the driver. The higher, bigger and/or longer the vehicle, the bigger it’s blind spot. Regardless of the size of your car, you should therefore always walk around it before backing up, and even then back up slowly. Although there are no current regulations requiring a baseline amount of rear view visibility, also be aware that there are cars (my minivan included) that now come equipped (or can be equipped) with a rear-view camera. My advice would be to rank this added feature at the top of your wish list.

Additional Resources:

Originally posted on Omaha World Herald’s Live Well Nebraska

Kids and Cars: Teen Driver Safety

News of teen car crash victims invariably get me choked up, but I have recently found myself thinking even more than usual about teenage drivers. I’m sure this is in large part due to the fact that my oldest child has now started talking about what car she hopes to drive in the not-too-distant future. I’m pretty sure it’s also because of the recent news detailing the incredibly sad local story about teenage sisters involved in a fatal crash.

But to be honest, this time of year always makes me think about the risks involved in newly licensed teens getting behind the wheel. I’m not sure why the time of year should make a difference – since the premature death of a teenager is without exception an horribly sad occasion in any season. But there’s apparently something even more devastatingly newsworthy about covering the senseless loss of life when it happens on prom night or just after graduation when teens should be excitedly preparing to embark on their future, not being laid to rest.

Needless to say, my heart always goes out to the families and friends of the more than 3000 teens who die in motor vehicle crashes each year. At the same time, my thoughts also turn immediately towards helping make sure you and every other parent (myself included) know what parents can do to protect our own children from such a tragedy.

It’s important to start by being aware of just how common it is for teenagers to be involved in motor vehicle crashes. Not only do car crashes continue to rank as the number one cause of death for teens, but 16 to 19 year olds are four times more likely to be fatally injured than 25 to 69 year olds.

Having said that, I feel the need to assure you (and my own teenagers, if they happen to read this) that my goal here isn’t to convince you that you should take away the car keys until your child reaches the age of 25. Rather, it’s to tell you that there is good evidence to support the notion that what you do as a parent, including the limits you set when it comes to your teen’s introduction to driving, is exceedingly important.

So what can you do to limit your teen’s crash risk? The good news is there’s actually a lot you can do.

  • Practice, practice, practice. Be aware that a teen’s greatest lifetime risk of crashing is in the first 6 months after getting a driver’s license – a risk that is in large part attributed to inexperience. In fact, seventy-five percent of all serious crashes involving teens have been related to three main critical errors of inexperience – lack of scanning for (and responding to) hazards, going too fast for road conditions, and distractions. Based on what we now know, however, the number of supervised hours that teens get behind the wheel before getting their driver’s licenses makes a big difference.
  • Set limits. It should come as no surprise that parents who set appropriate boundaries –– both on and off the road – have been shown to have a big impact on their children’s health and well being. Teen drivers are no exception. According to a study published in Pediatrics, teen drivers whose parents set and enforced rules were more likely to wear seat belts and less likely to speed, get in crashes, drink and drive, or use cell phones.
  • Help your teen avoid distractions. While it’s a good idea to avoid any and all distractions that stand to interfere with your teen’s undivided attention, there are 2 driving distractions in particular that have been proven to kill teens: cell phones and other teen passengers. In fact, nearly two out of three teen crash deaths for 16-year-old new drivers involve additional teen passengers.
  • Know the rules. Every state is different when it comes to laws about teen driving and learner’s permits. A majority of states – Nebraska included – place restrictions on new drivers in the first 6 to 12 months of driving. Referred to as a Graduated Driver’s License (GDL), such limits as nighttime and passenger restrictions have been proven to reduce crash risk. Nebraska’s GDL restrictions include no driving between midnight and six a.m. until the age of 17, and no passengers other than family members for the first 6 months of driving.
  • Agree upon the rules of the road. This is easiest done by printing out a Parent-Teen Driving Agreement (such as the one from the CDC or Checkpoints) and making sure you and your teen both take it seriously
  • Drive by example. Just as with every other aspect of parenthood, your teen driver will be watching you. Logging lots of supervised practice hours is definitely important for your teen’s future driving safety, but so is serving as a role model by making sure you always wear your seatbelt and put down your cell phone while driving.

For more very valuable information on teen driver safety, I recommend the following sites:

Originally posted on Omaha World Herald’s Live Well Nebraska