In South Florida, fall is marked not by a change in the leaves or a chill in the air, but by the appearance of carved pumpkins on doorsteps and huge bags of sugary candy on supermarket shelves. Halloween is here. In just a few days, children all over South Florida will partake in a night of dress-up fun with friends and loads of treats they normally would not be allowed. For parents, it can mean days of excess candy in the house and worries about safety.
These concerns are not entirely unfounded. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that last year there were 41 million trick-or-treaters between the ages of 5 and 14. Data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and State Farm/Sterling shows that there are almost two times the number of child pedestrian fatalities on Halloween as on any other night of the year. Sixty percent of these accidents occur between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m., and a third occur in kids 12-15 years old. Significantly, 70 percent of fatal accidents occur when kids cross roads in the middle of the street away from intersections and crosswalks.
Several factors can increase the likelihood of your child making a bad decision when out trick-or-treating. For example, most children are used to spending time outdoors during daylight, but most Halloween activities start after dark. Costumes may be black or dark for a more frightening effect, but not made to enhance visibility on streets. Children may be wearing masks that limit their vision and hearing. Younger children, especially those under 5, are less visible to drivers and have pedestrian skills that are less developed. And what greater distraction for kids than the promise of an extra spooky house or lots of mini Snickers bars just across the street?
Kids are more likely to choose the shortest rather than the safest route (between cars rather than at intersections) to cross streets. They also have developmentally reduced attentiveness and impulse control. Add to this the fantasy of being Spiderman or a Ninja Turtle and kids may make risky decisions.
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To help parents sort out the tricks of Halloween, the American Academy of Pediatrics has compiled a list of Halloween Safety Tips at www.AAP.org. Key to this list is emphasizing parents’ roles in teaching children pedestrian safety rules. These are important on Halloween but should also be constantly reinforced to allow kids to walk safely all year. Children should:
▪ Always cross at street corners and use traffic signals and crosswalks. Never cut across yards or use alleys.
▪ Look left-right-left before crossing.
▪ Stay in groups and walk only in well-lit neighborhoods and streets.
▪ Watch for cars backing out of driveways.
▪ Not assume the right of way. Keep eye contact with drivers you pass in front of and make sure the drivers see you.
To this list I would add being in the moment with your kids and avoiding texting and talking while trick-or-treating. Take your cell phone for safety and pictures but avoid distracted walking, which has been shown to lead to pedestrian injuries in all ages.
When dressing your superhero, princess or pirate, plan for costumes to be bright and reflective. Use additional reflective tape on costumes and trick-or-treat bags to add visibility. Make sure shoes are comfortable and fit well. Avoid costumes that are too long and can drag or trip up little feet. Opt for non-toxic makeup instead of masks that can obstruct vision. Have everyone in your group — kids and adults — carry flashlights to light your way.
Wait until you arrive home to sort and check all candy and treats. Throw out any spoiled or unwrapped candy before allowing children to dig into their loot.
A fun Halloween does not necessarily need to imply an unhealthy one. Have your little ones eat a healthy meal or snack before setting off on their trick-or-treat adventure. This will discourage filling up on sweets along the way.
You can also be creative and consider non-food Halloween treats. A study done by researchers at Yale found that children choose toys or stickers as often as candy when offered both at Halloween. A non-candy treat will still make your child happy and allow you to avoid days of extra-sugary snacks in the house.
Balancing these safety tips and healthy choices with a fun night out will make for a great Halloween for kids and parents. Wishing you and your family a happy, healthy and safe All Hallows Eve!
Lourdes Forster, M.D., is Medical Director of UHealth Pediatrics. The Department of Pediatrics at UHealth is nationally and internationally acclaimed for education, research, patient care and biomedical innovation. For more information, visit UHealthSystem.com/patients/pediatrics.