Accidents to children
Accidents to children are a significant health issue, being a major cause of preventable death, serious injury and long-term disability across the UK.
Under-5s are particularly at risk of being injured in home accidents, with falls accounting for the majority of non-fatal accidents and threats to breathing such as suffocation, strangulation and choking causing the highest number of deaths.
Most home accidents are preventable through increased awareness, improvements in the home environment and greater product safety.
Please click on the topic which interests you:
Helping your child to avoid accidents at home
Safe at home: tips for under-5s
Simple steps you can take to help make sure your children are safe
What injuries occur?
The most severe injuries are associated with heat-related accidents and falls from a height. Older children are more likely to sustain fractures than younger counterparts.3 Younger children have a higher percentage of burns and scalds as well as poisoning and ingestion accidents.3
Where do accidents happen?
The largest number of accidents happen in the living/dining room.3 However, the most serious accidents happen in the kitchen and on the stairs. Every year more than 67,000 children experience an accident in the kitchen - 43,000 of these are aged between 0-4 years; 58,000 children have accidents on the stairs.3
When do accidents happen?
- Most happen between late afternoon and early evening, in the summer, during school holidays and at weekends
- Factors such as stress, death in the family, chronic illness, homelessness or moving home increase the likelihood of the child having an accident
- Some happen when the usual routine is changed or when people are in a hurry
- Distractions and inadequate supervision are often the cause of accidents
- Poor housing and overcrowded conditions lead to increased numbers of accidents
- Some accidents are caused by lack of familiarity with surroundings, for example, when visiting friends or relatives, or in holiday accommodation.
Cost of children's accidents
It is difficult to give a true cost of treating children's accidents as outpatients and inpatients but in the past it has been estimated at more than £275 million a year. It can cost as much as £250,000 to treat one severe bath water scald. 11
This figure does not reflect the long-term costs of prolonged treatment and rehabilitation or the cost of pain suffering to the patient. Nor does it reflect the lifetime disfigurement or disability and the financial loss to the patient and family or work hours lost caring for an injured child.
Who is at risk?
- 0-4-year-olds have the most accidents at home.3
- Boys are more likely to have accidents than girls. 3
Childhood injuries are closely linked with social deprivation. Children from poorer backgrounds are five times more likely to die as a result of an accident than children from better off families - and the gap is widening. 1
Why do children have accidents?
Because children are often absorbed in their own immediate interests they can be oblivious to their surroundings. They only have a limited perception of the environment because of their lack of experience or development. They are not aware of the consequences of the many new situations that they encounter daily.
This may prevent a child from seeing above an obstruction or being seen by an adult.
Curiosity and a spirit of adventure may lead a child into danger.
Bravado and horseplay
Boys are particularly prone to showing off and over reaching their abilities, especially among friends. Many accidents are caused by horseplay involving pushing, shoving and wrestling.
Tensions at home and emotional upsets caused by temper, jealousy and over excitement may cause a child to run blindly into danger. Such action may even be deliberate to seek attention.
A child's interpretation of a situation may be inaccurate and adults looking after small children should be aware not to expect too much of them.
Children need constant supervision. Medicines, pills and toxic substances should be locked away and fires and stairs should be guarded.
Safety and child development
Children differ in their rate of development but the information below is a guide to development stages:
||Wriggle and kick, grasp, suck, roll over.
||Do not leave on a raised surface.
||Stand, sit, crawl, put things in mouth.
||Keep small objects and dangerous substances out of reach
||Move about, reach things high up, and find hidden objects, walk, and climb.
||Never leave alone, place hot drinks out of reach, use a fireguard and stairgates
||Be adventurous, climb higher, pull and twist things, watch and copy. Be a good role model and be watchful.
||Place matches and lighters out of sight and reach.
||Use grown-up things, be helpful, understand instructions, be adventurous, explore, walk downstairs alone.
||Continue to be a good role model, keep being watchful but start safety training.
||Play exciting games, can be independent, ride a bike, enjoy stories
||They can actually plan to do things and carry it out. Rules are very important to them, as long as everybody keeps to the same ones. They enjoy learning. Continue safety training.
||Will be subject to peer pressure and will still forget things.
||Still need supervision, guidance and support.
Preventing accidents to children
"A safe, secure and sustainable environment is a prerequisite for a healthy nation." 1
A combination of factors is required:
Improvement in planning and design results in safer homes and leisure areas. Adaptations such as fireguards and safety gates help to make the home environment safer.
This involves increasing the awareness of the risk of accidents in a variety of settings and providing information on ways of minimising these risks.
Local consultation and community involvement can generate a strong sense of commitment and ownership. Accident prevention initiatives, which have been influenced by the community, are more likely to reflect local need and therefore encourage greater commitment.
There is legislation which relates to child safety. These regulations ensure that the products we buy meet a reasonable level of safety performance and that new dwellings meet an acceptable level of safety.
General safety advice
- Children should be supervised at all times
- Keep floors free of toys and obstructions that can be tripped over
- Always use a securely fitted safety harness in a pram, pushchair or highchair
- Never leave babies unattended on raised surfaces
- Do not place baby bouncers on raised surfaces - they could fall off with the movement of the baby
- The use of baby-walkers and table-mounted high chairs is not recommended.
Around 10 children die as a result of falls each year - some from windows and balconies and the remainder mostly from stairs. 2,4,10
Falls are by far the most common causes of accidents in the home; they account for 44 per cent of all children's accidents. 3
Most falls involve tripping over on the same level. However, the most serious consequences result from falls between two levels, such as falling out of a pram or highchair or falling from a bed. The worst injuries are sustained when a child falls from a great height or lands on something hard, sharp or hot.
Many accidents are caused by horseplay involving pushing, shoving and wrestling. Children have also died or have been seriously injured by heavy objects such as furniture and televisions being pushed or pulled over them. Sets of drawers, in a child's eyes, make ideal climbing frames but, if unsecured, they pull over easily.
Stairs and windows
- Fit a safety gate BS EN 1930: 2011 5 at the top and bottom of stairs
- Never leave tripping hazards on the stairs
- Stairs should be carefully maintained - damaged or worn carpet should be repaired or removed
- Make sure balustrades are strong and do not have any footholds for climbing
- Stairs should always be well lit
- Fit child resistant window restrictors but make sure you can get out easily in an emergency
- Do not put anything under the window that can be climbed on
- Furniture and tall kitchen appliance, at risk from being pulled over, should be secured to the wall.
Domestic fires pose one of the greatest risks to children. Children playing with matches and lighters frequently start house fires.
- Keep matches and lighters out of sight and reach of children
- Always use a fireguard BS 8423: 2010 and secure it to the wall
- Extinguish and dispose of cigarettes properly
- Have an escape route planned, and practise it, in case of fire
- Fit a smoke alarm which complies with BS EN 14604 2005 and check it regularly
- The incidence of burns and scalds in young children is much higher than that of older children and adults. 3
Scalds and burns
Many of the children who go to accident and emergency with a burn or a scald are referred on for further hospital treatment. Recovery may be long and painful and many are left with permanent scarring.
Hot drinks cause most scalds to children under the age of five. A child's skin is much more sensitive than an adult's and a hot drink can still scald a child 15 minutes after being made. Young children are also very vulnerable to sunburn.
Hot bath water is responsible for the highest number of fatal and severe scalding injuries among young children. Around 500 children, mainly under fives, are admitted to hospital and a further 2000 attend A&E departments every year as a result of bath water scalds.
Children can also suffer burns after contact with open fires, a cooker, irons, curling tongs and hair straighteners, cigarettes, matches, cigarette lighters and many other hot surfaces.
- Never hold a hot drink and a child at the same time
- Never leave young children alone in the bathroom
- Put hot drinks out of reach and away from the edges of tables and worktops
- Encourage the use of a coiled flex or a cordless kettle
- Keep small children out of the kitchen whenever possible
- Run the domestic hot water system at 46°C or fit a thermostatic mixing valve to taps
- When running a bath turn the cold water on first and always test the water temperature with your elbow before letting a child get into the bath or shower
- Always use rear hotplates and turn the panhandles away from the front of the cooker
- Keep hot irons, curling tongs and hair straighteners out of reach even when cooling down.
The increased use of glass in the home has led to more glass related accidents. Every year children die following an accident with architectural glass. Many children are also injured when glass tumblers and bottles break.
- Use safety glass to BS 6206 (laminated, toughened or glass which passes the impact test) in all replacement windows and doors - especially at low level. Laminated glass is good for safety and security
- Make existing glass safer by applying shatter resistant film
- When buying furniture which incorporates glass, look for approval to BS EN 12521:2009 and BS 14749-2005, BS EN 14072:2003, BS EN 12150-1:2000 and BS EN 12600-2002
- Always clear up broken glass quickly and dispose of it safely
- Buy a greenhouse or cold frame with special safety glazing features or isolate with fencing.
Most poisoning accidents involve medicines, household products and cosmetics. Some poisoning agents can cause breathing difficulties - seek medical attention immediately.
More than 28,000 children receive treatment for poisoning, or suspected poisoning accidents every year. 3
Here you can find more information on poisoning accidents involving household products.
- Keep medicines and chemicals out of sight and reach of children, preferably in a locked cupboard
- Wherever possible, buy products in child resistant containers
- Always store chemicals in their original containers
- Dispose of unwanted medicines and chemicals safely
- Avoid buying plants with poisonous leaves or berries or those that can irritate the skin.
Suffocating and choking
Children can swallow, inhale or choke on items such as small toys, peanuts and marbles.
Nappy sacks, used to dispose of soiled nappies, can also pose a risk to babies and young children. We are aware of at least 14 deaths involving these items since 2001, where babies have suffocated after a nappy sack covered their mouth and nose, or have choked after putting a nappy sack in their mouth.
Parents and carers are generally aware of the dangers posed by plastic bags, but may not make the link to nappy sacks posing similar risks. Nappy sacks or bags tend to be fragranced, are made of a much more flimsy material, and do not rustle in the same way as plastic bags meaning they can be easily grasped and breathed in by young babies without parents realising.
Babies and small children are most at risk from choking because they examine things around them by putting them in their mouths.
- Choose toys appropriate to the age of the child
- Ensure that small objects such as marbles and peanuts and small toys are kept out of reach of children under three years old
- Encourage older children to keep their toys away from their younger playmates
- Pull cords on curtains and blinds should be kept short and kept out of reach
- Keep animals, especially cats, out of the bedroom and use a net on a pram
- Keep nappy sacks out of the reach of babies and young children
- Never store nappy sacks in or around the cot or pram.
- Small food such as grapes, cherry tomatoes, blackberries and other soft fruits should cut into quarters to prevent choking.
- Baby should always sleep on their back with their feet at the foot of their cot. Tuck the blanket in across their chest and under their arms and keep the cot free from bumpers, pillows and soft toys.
- Ensure your child is the right age for the cot, bed or other sleep product you wish to use. Kids’ 2-in-1 (combination) portable airbeds/sleeping bags, which are often promoted for holidays, are not suitable for babies due to the risk of suffocation. Always check the labels and follow the safety instructions.
Further information on Choking hazards in the home and how to avoid them* can be found here. Nappy sack risk awareness materials can be found on the campaign page.
For more information about keeping children safe at bedtime.
*Reproduced with kind permission of the British Association of Paediatric Otorhinolaryngology (BAPO) and British Association of Otorhinolaryngology – Head & Neck Surgery (BAO-HNS)
Strangulation including blind cords
At least 33 young children across the UK have died because of looped blind cords since 2001 – that’s one or two children each year – and there will be many more near misses.. Further information can be found on our blind cords campaign page.
Children can drown in less than 3cm of water. They should be under constant supervision when in or near any water.
- Never leave children or babies in the bath unsupervised, even for a moment
- Never leave uncovered bowls or buckets of water around the home
- Paddling pools should be emptied and stored away when not in use
- Garden ponds should be filled in while children are small or securely fenced off. Take special care when visiting other people’s gardens.
- DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH. Our healthier nation: a contract for health. Consultation Paper. London: The Stationary Office, 1998.
- Office for National Statistics: Mortality Statistics; injury and poisoning 2002: England & Wales. Series DH4 no. 27.
- CONSUMER SAFETY UNIT. 24th Annual Report, Home Accident Surveillance System. London: Department of Trade and Industry, 2002.
- General Register Offices for Scotland: Annual Report of the Registrar General for Scotland 2002.
- BS EN 1930:2011 Specification for safety requirements for child safety barriers for domestic use.
- BS EN 14604 2005 Specification for self contained smoke alarms and point-type smoke detectors.
- BS EN 12521:2009 Specification for inclusion of glass in the construction of tables or trolleys.
- BS 14749-2005, BS EN 14072:2003, BS EN 12150-1:2000 and BS EN 12600-2002 Specification for inclusion of glass in the construction of furniture other than tables or trolleys, including cabinets, shelving systems and wall hung or free standing mirrors.
- HOGG, C. Preventing children’s accidents: a guide for health authorities and boards . London: Child Accident Prevention Trust, 1996.
- General Register Office (Northern Ireland): Registrar General Annual Report 2002: Section 6- Causes of death.
- CAPT (Child Accident Prevention Trust) 18 Farringdon Lane, London EC1R 3HA
RoSPA cannot be held responsible for the accuracy or completeness of any pages on linked websites.