Introduction  

Accidental injuries in and around the home are one of the leading causes of serious harm and death in young children the UK. However, most of these accidents are preventable.

Each year, it's estimated that around 2 million children under the age of 15 are taken to accident and emergency (A&E) after being injured in or around the home. Around half a million of these children are younger than five.

Many more children are treated at home by their parents, carers or GP.

This page covers:

Who's most at risk of serious accidents?

What causes accidents in the home?

When do accidents happen?

What to do if your child has a serious accident

How to prevent accidents in the home

Who's most at risk?

Children under the age of five are most likely to have an accident at home. Boys are generally more likely to be injured than girls.

Young children are particularly at risk because they're less able to assess danger. Their perception of the environment around them is often limited and their lack of experience and development, such as poor co-ordination and balance, can result in them being injured.

Injuries that occur in the home are often linked to a child's age and level of development. It can sometimes be difficult for parents to keep up with their child’s capabilities.

From an early age, babies are able to wriggle, grasp and roll over. Between 6 and 12 months old, they may be able to stand, sit, crawl and put things in their mouth. As they get older, they're able to walk and move about, reach things higher up, climb, and find hidden objects.

What causes accidents in the home?

Most serious accidents that affect young children at home are caused by:

  • falls from a height
  • burns and scalds from fire, hot water or hot objects
  • choking or suffocating
  • poisoning from swallowing a harmful substance or object
  • drowning

There are potential hazards in every home, such as stairs, household chemicals, fireplaces and ponds. However, there are lots of things you can do to help keep your child safe (see How to prevent accidents in the home below)

When do accidents happen?

Accidents are more likely to occur at home during the summer, weekends and school holidays, especially in the late afternoon and early evening.

An accident in the home is more likely to happen if:

  • there is a distraction and lack of supervision
  • there is a change to the child's usual routine, or you're rushing around in a hurry
  • surroundings are unfamiliar – for example, you're on holiday or visiting friends or relatives

Poor housing, overcrowded conditions and social deprivation have also been linked to an increased risk of childhood accidents. 

What to do if your child has a serious accident

Many accidents should be treated initially with first aid at home. Read our pages on first aid for information about how to treat common injuries and when you should seek medical help.

You can also use the following advice as a general guide.

Immediately dial 999 to request an ambulance if your child:

  • stops breathing
  • is struggling to breathe – for example, if the area under their ribcage is "sucked in"
  • is unconscious or seems unaware of what's going on
  • won’t wake up
  • has a seizure (fit) for the first time, even if they seem to recover

Take your child to your nearest A&E department if they:

  • have a high temperature (fever) and they're lethargic (lacking in energy), despite having paracetamol or ibuprofen
  • are breathing fast, panting or very wheezy
  • have severe abdominal (tummy) pain
  • have a cut that won't stop bleeding or is gaping open
  • have a leg or arm injury and they're unable to use the limb
  • have swallowed poison or tablets

Call NHS 111 if you’re worried about your child’s injuries and you're not sure whether they need medical help. If you’re not sure whether you should move your child, make sure they’re warm and then dial 999 to request an ambulance.

Read more about what to do if your child has an accident.

How to prevent accidents in the home

Exploring and playing are an essential part of your child's learning and development, so you should be careful not to overprotect them.

Minor injuries such as bumps and bruises are unavoidable, but there are some things you can do to help protect your child from more serious and potentially life-threatening accidents.

In general, this includes supervising your child carefully, being aware of any potential risks and taking steps to make your home safer. Below is some specific advice about some of the most common childhood accidents and how you can help prevent them.

Falls

It's likely that young children will fall over and get knocks and bruises while learning to walk, but serious injuries can be avoided

For babies, the biggest danger is rolling off the edge of a table, bed or sofa. Toddlers quickly learn how to climb and explore and it's very easy for them to fall off a piece of furniture, down stairs or out of a window or balcony.

Below are some tips to prevent falls in the home.

  • Make sure your baby cannot roll off the changing surface and don't leave them unattended on any raised surfaces.
  • Don't put a bouncing cradle or similar piece of equipment on a table or worktop – they can easily bounce off the edge.
  • Fit restrictors to upstairs windows so they cannot be opened more than 6.5cm – but make sure you can still open them quickly in an emergency.
  • Keep chairs and other climbing objects away from windows and balconies.
  • Fit safety gates approved by British Standards (BS EN 1930:2011) at the top and bottom of stairs if your child is younger than two.
  • Don't leave anything on the floor or stairs that might cause someone to fall over, and ensure there is enough light on the stairs.
  • Check there is no room for a child to crawl through any banisters at the top of the stairs. Board them up if there's a risk of your child falling through them or getting stuck.
  • Keep balcony doors locked to prevent your child from going on to it alone and board up any balcony railings or fit wire netting as a guard.
  • Secure any furniture and kitchen appliances to the wall if there's a risk they could be pulled over.

Suffocating and choking

Babies and young children can easily swallow, inhale or choke on small items such as marbles, buttons, peanuts and small toys. The steps below can help prevent this happening.

  • Keep small objects out of the reach of small children.
  • Choose toys designed for the age of your baby or child – encourage older children to keep their toys away from your baby.
  • Beware of clothing with cords, dummies on necklace cords and bag straps – they can easily get caught and pull tightly on the neck.
  • Lay your baby on their back in a cot to sleep – don't let babies sleep in an adult bed or on the sofa and don't use pillows as they can suffocate.
  • Keep plastic bags away from young children – they can pull these over their heads and suffocate.
  • Nappy sacks, used to dispose of soiled nappies, can also pose a risk – keep them out of the reach of babies and young children.
  • Curtain and blind pull cords should be kept short and out of reach of children.
  • Keep animals, particularly cats, out of your bedrooms – if they jump into cots or beds they could suffocate your child. Attach a net over prams if necessary.

Fires

Domestic fires pose a significant risk to children. Children playing with matches and lighters frequently start house fires. The youngest children often hide from the danger and may not be found until it's too late.

The following points are important safety precautions to prevent a fire starting while you sleep and ensure you and your child don't breathe in poisonous smoke.

  • Fit smoke alarms on every level of your home.
  • Test smoke alarms regularly and change the batteries every year. Even better, get alarms that have 10-year batteries or are wired into the mains or plug into light sockets.
  • At night, switch off electrical items before you go to bed and close all doors to contain a potential fire.
  • Work out an escape plan for your family and tell your children what to do in case of a fire. Practise the plan regularly.
  • Always use a fireguard on an open fireplace and make sure it's attached to the wall. Don't lean or hang anything from it.
  • Keep matches and lighters out of reach of children.
  • Extinguish and dispose of cigarettes carefully, particularly at night.

Burns and scalds

Hot drinks cause most burns and scalds to young children. A child’s skin is far more sensitive than an adult's, and hot water can scald for up to 15 minutes after it has boiled. Hot bath water is also an important cause of severe and fatal scalding injuries in young children.

Children can also get burns from open fires, cookers, irons, hair straighteners and tongs, cigarettes, matches, lighters and other hot surfaces.

The following advice can help prevent these accidents occurring.

  • Switch off heated appliances immediately after use and place them out of reach – this includes irons, hair straighteners and curling tongs. Keep the cord safely out of reach as well.
  • Always place hot drinks out of children's reach. Keep them away from the edges of tables and surfaces, and don’t use tablecloths that children can pull at.
  • Don't drink anything hot with a child on your lap or in your arms.
  • Use a cordless kettle or one with a coiled lead that can be kept short.
  • Use the back rings on the cooker whenever possible and turn saucepan handles away from the edge of the counter.
  • If possible, keep young children out of the kitchen.
  • Before bathing your baby or child, check the water is not too hot – a good test is to put your elbow in first. When filling the bath, run the cold water first before adding hot water. As your child gets older, teach them to test the water first too.
  • Fit a thermostatic mixing valve to your bath's hot tap to control the temperature and stop your child being badly scalded.

Poisoning

Most poisoning injuries involve medicines, household products and cosmetics.

The points below will help prevent your child being poisoned.

  • Keep anything that may be poisonous out of reach, preferably in a locked cupboard – this includes all medicines and pills, household cleaners, liquid detergent capsules and garden products.
  • Use containers with child-resistant tops – be aware that by three years of age, many children are able to open child-resistant tops, although it may take them a little longer.
  • Keep all dangerous chemicals in their original containers – for example, don't store weedkiller in an old drinks bottle because a young child may mistake it for something safe to drink.
  • Dispose of unwanted medicines and chemicals carefully.
  • Discourage your children from eating any plants, berries or fungi when outside – some are poisonous and can be fatal. Avoid buying plants with poisonous leaves or berries.
  • To prevent carbon monoxide poisoning, fit a carbon monoxide alarm and make sure that you have carbon fuel burning appliances (such as gas, coal, wood, oil burners) serviced every year.

Glass-related injuries

Broken glass can cause serious cuts. The following advice may help you keep your child safe.

  • Use safety glass at a low level, such as in doors and windows. Safety glass is glass that's toughened and laminated and passes specially designed impact tests. Normal glass shatters more easily. The British Standard for safety glass is BS 6206. Look for the BS marks on your windows or ask the glazier who is fitting your windows.
  • Make existing glass safe by applying a shatter-resistant film.
  • When buying furniture that incorporates glass, make sure it's safety approved. Look for furniture that meets the following safety standards: BS EN 12521:2009 and BS 14749-2005, BS EN 14072:2003, BS EN 12150-1:2000 and BS EN 12600-2002.
  • Always dispose of broken glass quickly and safely – wrap it in newspaper before throwing it in the bin.
  • If you own a greenhouse or cold frame (a structure to protect plants from the winter cold), make sure it has safety glazing or is fenced off from children.
  • Don't let a toddler hold anything made of glass.

Drowning

Children can drown in a few centimetres of water. They should be supervised at all times when near water. You should follow the advice below.

  • Never leave a baby or child in the bath unsupervised, not even for a minute – this includes in a bath seat.
  • Don't leave uncovered containers of liquid around the house.
  • Empty paddling pools and store them away when not in use.
  • Ideally, fill in garden ponds when your child is young and before they're mobile. If this isn't possible, cover ponds with a rigid grille or fence them off securely.
  • Be careful when your children visit other gardens that have ponds or lakes nearby.
  • If you decide to keep a garden pond make sure children are supervised closely and constantly while they're in the garden.

Further information:

Page last reviewed: 11/05/2015

Next review due: 11/05/2017