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Safety First!

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You’ll find no shortage of advice on keeping babies and toddlers safe. There are all sorts of must-dos to prep your house for a kid, like covering outlets, keeping sharp or heavy objects off reachable table surfaces, sequestering your cleaning fluids, and so forth.

But even though we might like the idea, we can’t create a protective bubble around our kids; they have to learn how to manage their own bodies and create a healthy sense of caution and good judgment for themselves. Relying on childproofing and banning all potential dangers only works to the extent that you anticipate and preempt your child’s every move. The long-term goal is for her to have an internal compass that helps her make her own smart decisions.

In the early years, that’s a tall order, but planting the seeds of this idea is important. Consider these tips to foster your child’s sense of safety:

Start early: It’s amazing how far your child’s ability to understand precedes her ability to speak. Even your six-month-old understands some of your words, and certainly the intention in your voice. Talk to your baby or toddler as though she will heed your guidance about what is okay and what’s not — if you treat her this way, she’s more likely to follow suit. Teaching safety and limits is based on clear, direct communication, and that foundation comes from many of your day-to-day interactions.

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When your baby has your keys and you want to take them away, don’t just grab them. Talk to her as if she’s a reasonable little person: Before you take them, say “I’m going to take the keys now because they’re not good for eating. Here’s a set of measuring spoons you can play with.” Imagine that she gets it.

When she has her hands on a small object, before you simply yank it away, consider talking to her about what she can and can’t do with it: “Not in your mouth. You can play with it in your hands, but not in your mouth.” (Of course, only allow for this kind of learning if you’re right next to her to supervise.) If she’s six-months-old, she may not understand the concept, and even later on she’ll have a hard time resisting the impulse, but if you repeat it over the weeks and months, she will get the idea. Again, approach her as if she’s a smart and capable little being. You’ll notice she’s starting to learn when she pauses briefly or looks at your reaction when she does something she knows she’s not supposed to.

Ask instead of tell: If you see your toddler start to climb precariously on the couch, instead of shouting, “That’s not safe!” right away, say, “I notice you’re up really high. Do you feel safe?” You might notice her looking around or gauging her own balance, for example, which over time helps her decide what’s safe. Of course, if your child is in imminent danger or is too young to understand, you can skip this, but it’s a good question for older toddlers and preschoolers because it prompts them to check in with their own senses. They may not be good at it right away, but the more you pose these kinds of questions, the more that muscle will build.

Own it: When it’s time to convey the laws of safety to your child, use a tone of voice and body language that means business. You shouldn’t have to yell all the time (of course, if your toddler is making her way to the street, by all means, yell away). Get down on her level, look your child in the eye, and speak in a clear and confident voice using short phrases with brief explanations.

Use “no” wisely: People sometimes suggest removing this word from your vocabulary, but “no” is useful and important. The problem is that overusing “no” devalues the word. Replace it with short explanations (except when there’s a danger of being hurt or hurting someone else). If your toddler is going for a picture frame high up on the bookshelf, try, “That’s not for grabbing.” Or when she’s munching on the TV remote, “That’s not good for eating. Yucky.” Or in the kitchen: “The stove is hot. Move away and give me some space to cook.” This approach is more informative for your toddler, and when you use a firm no (for example, when she hits a friend or is about to touch a hot stove) it will also have more meaning. If your toddler does bump his head or touch something hot, talk about it later — not to scold, but to teach — and help him make the connection between his actions and the result.

Take time to explain boundaries and limits to your child. Tell her that knives are sharp and could hurt your body, and answer her questions about it. Be clear about your rationales for having your child avoid certain objects or activities. This doesn’t mean you have to negotiate or lose any authority on the matter (no means no); it just gives you the opportunity to teach your child. The more she internalizes these ideas, the more corner pads, toilet seat latches, and door handle covers you’ll be able to get rid of.

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