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Once that cute bundle of fragility is placed in your arms, you may wonder how you'll ever keep him out of harm's way. The good news is that you don't have to go it alone; there's a wealth of expert information available. Getting up to speed on the basics will get you and your family feeling secure mentally and physically.
Use the car seat correctly
The modern infant car seat is a wonderful invention – just ask your parents, who probably wrestled with some unwieldy contraption (if they had anything). Today's portable, snap-in versions are lighter and easier to handle, and most important, better at protecting your little one. However, according to Kate Carr, president of Safe Kids Worldwide, many parents hamper the car seat's effectiveness by using it incorrectly.
"Often, parents set the chest clip too low or too high," she says. "They also tend to keep the harness straps too loose." Make sure you avoid these mistakes, as well as other common errors, by carefully reviewing your car seat manufacturer's instructions. You can also check out our infant car seat guide and many police and fire stations have experts who will check and correct your seat's installation.
Given the ease with which many babies sleep in their seats, some parents may be tempted to let their little ones snooze in them at night. That's a dangerous practice. "When a baby is in the car seat for long periods of time, her head can drop forward and obstruct her airway," says Mike Goodstein, pediatrician for the American Association of Pediatrics. Experts even recommend the baby be taken out of the seat once an hour, even when driving, to reduce this risk.
Finally, never set your baby in a car seat on a piece of furniture; she could rock herself off the table. (This goes for bouncy seats as well.)
Be attentive at bath time
Bath time can be a wonderful bonding experience, but it also places your baby in a particularly vulnerable situation. "Since infants' heads are heavier than their bodies, they can easily topple forward and become submerged in the water," says Anita Chandra-Puri, pediatrician and spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics. "A baby can drown this way – even in only one inch of water. And it can happen very quickly."
It's crucial that you never leave your baby unattended in the bath. This means no stepping out of the room to grab a towel, no running to the front door to catch that delivery, and no becoming engrossed in your smart-phone. Set up all your supplies beforehand, keep your attention on your baby the entire time, and ignore any distractions until your baby is dried and diapered.
Baby proof the home
And as your baby grows, she'll show you just how quickly she can get herself into trouble. Though the process of covering outlets, installing gates and putting locks on cabinets will take up a few days, babyproofing is essential to create a space that's hazard-free as your little one becomes more and more mobile.
That goes for chokables, too. Until they're old enough to really understand what is and isn't food, many babies' first instinct will be to put anything into their mouths – coins, cat litter, small toys. Get in the habit of placing small items out of baby's reach. "If you can put it through a toilet paper roll, it's too small for a baby to handle," says pediatrician Lisa Dana. Beyond choking, some common small items like the silver button batteries inside remote controls are toxic and can cause irreparable harm if swallowed.
Siblings need to be trained, too. "Toddlers and preschoolers may try to 'feed' the baby," warns Dana. Teach your older child not to do this and – exhausting as it is – make sure he is constantly supervised when he's around his new sibling.
Make the crib safe
Though cribs filled with stuffed animals, bumper pads and soft blankets look pretty, it's a major no-no. "Even the so called 'breathable bumpers' have strings that are choking hazards," says Dana.
Position the crib out of arm's reach of drapery cords and window blinds; as your baby grows older and begins to explore her world, the strings (including those between the blind slats) may be too enticing to resist. Finally, Dana reminds us, don't hang heavy artwork over the crib. The last thing you want is for that glass-covered clown picture to slip onto your baby.
Practice smart sun protection
Sunlight may be a mood-lifter, but it's a tricky thing for new parents. You don't want to expose your baby to the chemicals in sunscreens, but you don't want a sunburn either. The best option, says Dana, is to cover up with loose clothing and sunhats, pick shady spots when outdoors and try to stay out of the day's strongest sunlight, between 10 a.m and 4 p.m.
But that's not always possible, so "if you must choose between sunburn and sunscreen, choose the sunscreen," says Dana. "The risk from a burn is higher than the risk from the chemicals." Apply it every two hours (only to exposed skin), and keep in mind that some sunscreens are considered safer for babies than others. "Check the list released by the Environmental Working Group," advises Dana. "In general, zinc-based sunscreens are best."
Check the back seat
Though it seems unthinkable, every summer brings tragic reports of children dying from heatstroke after having been accidentally left in hot cars. In 2010 alone, there were 49 of these fatalities in the United States. According to Janette Fennell, founder and president of Kids and Cars, babies younger than one year are at highest risk.
While it's tempting to believe that this could never happen to you, the reality is that it can happen to anyone – even the most loving parent. Jodie Edwards understands this all too well. In 2008, her 11-month old daughter died after Edwards forgot to drop her off at daycare. "Somehow, and I know it is hard to understand, my brain flipped a switch," she writes in a statement. "I went from knowing she was in the backseat to firmly believing she was safely at the babysitter's."
A mistake of this magnitude is often the result of a "perfect storm" of circumstances. Often, the baby – in a rear-facing car seat and unseen by the driver – has fallen asleep and isn't making any noise. The parent, meanwhile, may be sleep-deprived and not in her usual routine, so her brain isn't on top of the circumstances. "Saying that love for your child will stop your brain from failing is like saying that your love can stop your kidneys from failing," says Fennell.
Create a routine that ensures you'll look back every time you leave the car, advises Edwards. "Put something you will need – a purse, cell phone, wallet, or briefcase – in the back seat so you are forced to check it every time."
Simple steps like these can go a long way toward easing the anxieties that come with caring for a new human. As scary as the world may seem, our common sense combined with some basic precautions are the best way to keep our families safe.