One of the reasons children have accidents is because they develop so fast that Mum and Dad can’t keep up! How many times have you heard the phrase ... “I didn’t know he could do that”? 

There is a direct link between accidents and child development:

  • Physical development - Their skin is thinner. They may be able to pull a nappy sack over their nose and mouth but then not pull it away again. Their bodies process poison differently. Their heads are proportionately bigger and heavier.

  • Cognitive development – They have to learn to pull away from something that’s burning them. Their understanding of risk and consequences develops over time. As does their ability to judge the speed and distance of traffic.

Many parents are taken by surprise by what their baby or toddler does next. So we encourage parents to stay one step ahead of their developing child, understanding what behaviours – and the accidents associated with them – may come next.

There is also a link to exposure (where children spend their time):

  • Under-fives are at greater risk in the home and garden.

  • Older children are at greater risk outside the home, on the roads as they start to make independent journeys, and at play, including in water.

To illustrate, here are four age-related scenarios:

1. A baby

A baby lies on a changing mat for a nappy change. Her arms are outstretched, and her hand reaches the bag of nappy sacks. As a consequence of her grasp reflex (the same reflex which enables her to grip your finger) she gets hold of a nappy sack and, with her hand to mouth reflex, pulls it to her mouth, where the flimsy plastic clings.

Babies don’t know they’re in danger of suffocation. Furthermore, even though a baby might struggle for breath, she will not be able to move the nappy sack away from her mouth. Keep nappy sacks out of reach of young babies.

Obviously good advice and, if followed, then the risks are greatly reduced. However by knowing the ‘why’, we are more motivated to take action and better able to anticipate other suffocation risks.

2. A toddler

Practising his newly-acquired climbing ability, a toddler climbs onto a chair. The chair is by a window with a roller blind and the blind cord is hanging near the chair. The child is unsteady, loses his footing and falls from the chair, tangling his head and neck in the looped blind cord.

Toddlers love to climb, but they won’t understand that they are at risk of a fall when they climb onto furniture. If they wobble, they’re unlikely to have learnt how to steady themselves. Furthermore, their windpipe is narrower and softer than that of an adult, so they can suffocate much more quickly – in as little as 20 seconds. Keep blind cords tied up and out of young children’s reach.

With a more detailed understanding, parents will be better able to see how these aspects of their child’s development links to other risks, such as falls down stairs or choking on food or small toys.

3. A pre-schooler

A three-year-old watches as his mother takes some paracetamol and puts the bottle in the bathroom cabinet out of reach. Later on at his grandmother’s house, he comes across a bottle of strong painkillers on her bedside table. Curious as to what’s inside, he removes the child-resistant top and swallows a handful of the pills.

Young children learn by observing and copying those around them. Wanting to be like mummy or daddy is a completely normal part of their development. If they do something that they’ve seen someone do, but which might put them at risk, they are not intentionally being naughty. While a young child might initially understand the instruction not to touch, at this age, they can’t be relied upon to understand the consequences or to remember the instruction.

Armed with this knowledge, parents and carers are better able to anticipate a variety of risks such as: lighters and matches, saucepan handles, and hair straighteners.

4. An older child

A nine-year-old needs to cross a road on her way to school. She stops, looks both ways, and, apart from a car in the distance, judges it safe to cross. However the car is travelling fast and is actually quite close – at that speed, the driver hasn’t got the stopping distance he needs when he sees the girl in the road.

At this age, a child’s brain is still developing the ability to judge distances and the speed at which a vehicle are travelling. And children develop differently. Knowing this will help parents and carers to make decisions about what a child who’s becoming increasingly independent can and can’t do safely on their own.

Doing what comes naturally

Sometimes a quick safety tip – keep hot drinks out of reach – is sufficient. But by thinking about how a child is developing empowers us to anticipate risk across a whole range of scenarios. And importantly, it helps to understand that a child isn’t being naughty, they just doing what comes naturally!

Five for the under-fives

90% of the most serious preventable accidents to the under-fives fall into five main areas:


If you have any budget, these resources in our online shop bring the links to child development to life: