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Skip full face masks for the tots, which can make it difficult for them to see and breathe comfortably.
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msnbc.com contributor
updated 10/30/2005 4:57:11 PM ET 2005-10-30T21:57:11

Halloween is a kid’s dream come true. Crazy clothes, the complete run of the neighborhood and mountains of candy — who wouldn’t love this holiday?

Well, increasingly, moms and dads, says Dr. Garry Gardner, a pediatrician in Darien, Ill., and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“Parents these days are more protective of their kids,” says Gardner. “With everything we hear about, there’s just a lot more fear in general.”

It’s no wonder, he says, that many parents are leery about letting their children venture out into the dark of the night to collect candy from strangers. Yet, Gardner says, kids needn’t be banned from participating in Halloween festivities or even relegated to mall trick-or-treating. A traditional Halloween can be a safe, sane and fun holiday if you follow a few safety guidelines, most of which are common sense.

Great pumpkin hazards
Fire hazards are a major issue around Halloween because of the use of candles. In fact, the U.S Fire Administration says that over a three-day period around Halloween, open flame fires increase by 50 percent.

“You really need to keep pumpkins with candles in a safe place far away from children or, better yet, use the safe [battery-operated] lights that go inside the pumpkin instead,” says Gardner.

Also, remember to keep lighted candles away from pets. Cats are notorious for jumping on tables and counters; a dog’s wagging tail can easily clear a coffee table.

Cuts from carving pumpkins are also a problem. Children should never be allowed to wield a knife. It’s difficult for an adult, let alone a kid, to cut eyes, noses and mouths into a tough pumpkin.

Instead, have your child draw the face on the gourd and then have an adult do the surgery. If nobody wants to risk it, buy a decorating kit or make your own facial features out of food or household items as you would a snowman or Mr. Potato Head, recommends Dr. Ari Brown, a pediatrician in Austin, Texas, and author of "Baby 411: Clear Answers and Smart Advice for your Baby’s First Year."

Wardrobe malfunctions
Costumes are an integral part of the holiday and they can be a great opportunity for self-expression and creativity (especially if you make your own) but the wrong costume can also be a danger.

Masks, for example, often make it difficult for children to see and breathe comfortably. "Consider using face paint instead,” says Gardner.

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Floppy shoes and Cinderella heels make walking difficult and tripping easy. Ditto for baggy costumes. Swords, pitchforks and the like should, of course, be plastic and flexible. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Halloween is a much more dangerous time for child pedestrians than any other time of the year. One study found that the number of child pedestrian deaths increased four-fold on Halloween evenings.

Part of the reason is that children are easily excited and distracted on Halloween and they are more likely to break traffic rules. For example, children are much more likely to cross in the middle of the block and run across streets without looking for cars. For this reason, Gardner advises going trick-or-treating as early as possible (with daylight savings time and parents working, though, going out before dusk may not be feasible). If you trick-or-treat later, make sure drivers can see your children.

“Costumes should be reflective or you should have reflective tape somewhere. You really do have to worry about visibility,” notes Gardner. Glow-in-the-dark necklaces and wristbands are also good ideas, as are flashlights for older children.

Keep watch over those ghosts and goblins
Supervision is essential, says Brown. Once children hit 10 or so they may start to beg to venture out alone. It’s probably not wise. “There always needs to be some level of supervision even with young teens,” she says.

That doesn’t mean you need to hold their hands or infringe severely on their autonomy. “Parents can just stand at a safe distance — at the curb or sidewalk — so the kids don’t look like they’re with you but you can still keep an eye on them," she says. "Usually everyone is perfectly happy with this arrangement.” Supervision not only ensures that your child follows safe traffic rules but also gives you peace of mind that they’ll be less susceptible to frightening or strange encounters and that they won’t be tempted to pull any pranks themselves.

Don’t forget to spend some time talking with your children about safe and courteous trick-or-treating. Preferably they should only trick-or-treat in their own neighborhood. That way you have an idea who is doling out the candy. If your neighborhood isn’t conducive, go with family or friends in their neighborhood. But keep it in moderation. No marathon trick-or-treating in unfamiliar neighborhoods. Aside from being less safe, it’s wasteful because you’re probably not going to allow them to eat all the candy anyhow.

“Get the idea across to kids that the point isn’t to collect as much candy as possible. The point is just to have a good time,” says Brown.

Of course, also make sure your children know not to go inside anyone’s home and never to knock on doors that have their porch light off. Unlit areas could present tripping hazards. Besides, it’s rude. The house could be out of candy or may have chosen for good reason not to participate (who knows, there could be a sleeping baby inside).

If you have older kids — 13- or 14-year-olds — and you decide to let them go out without you, make sure they stay in a group. Also, you should know where they plan to go and when they’ll be home. Outfit them with a flashlight, watch and, if possible, a cell phone.

With all those little candy bars and caramels weighing down the bag it’ll be hard to resist, but make sure kids know that you must check all their loot before they dive in. The one thing we used to fear — the infamous razor blade in the apple or candy bar — has thankfully proved to be an overblown urban legend. But it’s still wise to give candy the once-over before eating it. Gardner says to avoid homemade treats from strangers and candy not in intact wrappers.

Oh, yeah, and one last thing: HAVE FUN!

Victoria Clayton is a freelance writer based in California and co-author of "Fearless Pregnancy: Wisdom and Reassurance from a Doctor, a Midwife and a Mom," published by Fair Winds Press.

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