Scalds, or burns caused by hot liquids or steam, are one of the most frequent causes of burns in the kitchen. Young children are especially vulnerable to sustaining burns this way. They are frequently under-feet while you are busy cooking and sometimes you may not even realize how close they are. As well, children can easily tip over pans from the stove and cause boiling liquids to be poured onto themselves. Horrible burn injuries have occurred in this manner.
Do NOT think “this can never happen to my child.” Children are often unpredictable and even when they are being careful there are dangers in the kitchen. Of course, you yourself can be burned, as well.
Over 500,000 burns occur annually from scalding liquids. Although you may have gotten 2nd-degree burns from hot liquids, which are common, full thickness 3rd-degree burns can be caused by liquids heated to 140 degrees Fahrenheit or hotter in only 5 seconds. Along with adults over age 65, children five years of age or younger are at the highest risk for scald injuries.
I’ve already written at length about certain aspects of fire safety, in regards to cooking oil fires, and proper use of fire extinguishers. Some of the tips here, related to scald and burn injuries, overlap fire-safety in general.
Much of what follows comes come straight from the U.S. Fire Administration and their book Behavioral Mitigation of Cooking Fires, Behavioral Mitigation of Cooking Fires, where you can find much more information about fire prevention in the kitchen.
Scald Prevention Tips for Young Children
It may be necessary to have your toddler near you why you work in the kitchen, so you can supervise their play and make sure they are safe and happy. Keep in mind the following guidelines:
1. Keep Play Areas in a Safe Location
- Make sure any play area is not near the path between the stove and the sink. You will often be carrying pans of hot liquid to the sink, such as when you drain pasta into a colander. The area between the stove and the sink is a hot zone! Make sure your child never plays in this area.
- A safer way to drain pasta or any other boiled foods is to use a stock pot with a strainer insert, such as this Update International 12 Qt Stainless Steel Pasta Cooker w/ Strainer.
2. Use High Chairs or Play Yards When Possible
- If possible, when you are cooking or serving food with your child is in the kitchen, have them in a high chair or play yard that is placed a safe distance from the stove-tops or counter, or any other hot surfaces or hazardous items or areas.
3. Keep Walkers out of the Kitchen (and Bathroom)
- NEVER allow child walkers in the kitchen or the bathroom. There are lots of overhead dangers in the kitchen, such as pot handles, knives set on counter edges, etc. Infants or toddlers in child walkers have a bit more height so are more likely to be able to reach up and grab onto these items, inviting disaster. Dangling cords are a danger in the bathroom. Use a baby gate, if necessary, to cordon off the kitchen.
4. Don’t Let Young Children Play with Cooking Pots
- If you are like me, you played with pots and pans and other kitchen equipment when you were little. A couple of pots and a wooden spoon or two and you had some great music! Alas, many of the things we did as kids are dangerous (we used to ride down the highway on the tailgate of a pickup truck (yikes).
- You shouldn’t allow children to play with pots, pans, or other cooking utensils in the kitchen. Young children can’t distinguish between the old pot that is a “toy” and the one sitting on the stove full of boiling water. Likewise, he or she may not see the difference between a spoon and a sharp knife. Make sure that “kitchen toys” are obviously toys. Small plastic play-sets are probably a better choice.
5. When Children are Around, Try to Cook on the Back Burners
- Although clear plastic stove guards are available to help shield your child from hot pots on the stove, it is best to cook on back burners when children are around, to keep the pots as far away from them as possible.
6. Keep Pot Handles Turned In
- This tip is something that is for all ages. I am always obsessively turning pot handles in when they are sticking out. I’ve caught more than a few walking by and almost burned myself (and I have burned myself, both my hands are scarred). Pot handles sticking out from stoves are a main kitchen hazard. When children are present, the danger needle goes into the red. KEEP POT HANDLES TURNED IN WHILE COOKING! Make sure the handle is back as far as practical and not near the edge. Anything sticking out is inviting to a little kid…they just love to grab things.
7. Be Aware of Confusing Stove Differences
- Be aware of the confusing differences between various types of modern stove-tops. Induction cooking stoves and smooth-top ceramic electric stoves could be a source of confusion for a young child. Make sure your child knows to NEVER touch the cooking surface of a stove.
- Imagine if your child is on a play-date with a friend whose parents own an induction stove. Your child’s friend or even their parent shows your child how the cooking surface is not hot by placing a hand on the surface when the stove is turned on. Amazing!
- Later, your child may decide to experiment, to see for themselves whether stoves can be touched or not. Even more confusion could be caused by a smooth-top electric stove, similar in appearance to a conduction top, except that the surface is actually hot. Although it may seem unlikely for such a scenario to occur, children are unpredictable and are not as able to compartmentalize as you or I; they tend to generalize. So, the message is: Never touch a stove while in use!
8. Do NOT Leave Young Children Alone in Kitchen While Cooking
- Children can be a lot like a puppy. You think your puppy is paying attention, but the he spots a chipmunk! No matter how often you have drilled the rules into them, or how safe you have made the kitchen, if you walk out of the room and leave something cooking on the stove, your child may become curious. Boiling or frying food can make interesting noise, emit steam, etc. which can peak your child’s curiosity. You may only be gone a few seconds but it only takes a few seconds for a child to suffer a burn. You know that hot oil can “spit” while foods are frying, so even from a distance, hot cooking oil can be a hazard.
9. Old Ovens Can be a Hazard
- Some ovens, when old and improperly insulated, may not only get hot on the inside. They may get hot enough on the outside to burn! My mother in law has such a stove. If you touch it in the wrong spot while it is turned on, it is like touching a hot pan on a stove. If your oven is like this, your child could lean or fall against it and be burned. If you have a low oven, to keep your child safe, test the temperature outside your oven and make sure that none of the outer surfaces become hot enough to burn. If they do, consider replacing your oven with a safer model.
10. Don’t Let Young Children Stand Near When Opening a Hot Oven
- I know that you have, at times, opened a hot oven and gotten a blast of super-heated steam in your face. It’s unpleasant, and if you wear glasses, you are temporarily blinded when the steam condenses on the lenses. Well, if you child is standing near when you open the oven, their face may be exactly at the level of the heat coming out and they may get a much worse blast of heat than you do while bending over to remove something. Make sure they stand well away when you open the oven door.
Beware of Hot Tap Water
It would be improper to mention the danger of scalds from cooking liquids without mentioning the danger of hot tap water. Despite the severe danger scalding liquids from the stove, most scald injuries occur from hot top water. Consult the Burn Foundation for more information. Make sure your hot water heater is not set too high. Set your heater to a maximum temperature of 120º to 125º F or less, and remember that this temperature is still to hot for a bath! Even lower temperatures can burn if the exposure is prolonged.
Look for More Tips!
The safety tips given here are some of the most important for you to implement, but there may be many other things to consider. Some people are concerned, for example, about children playing with stove knobs. Sometimes stove knobs can be removed when not in use, but you must consider whether this is the safest alternative. There are also stove knob covers which may work for you. This is only one of many other possible considerations, including access to drawers and cabinets. If you are expecting a new baby, you may want to purchase a book on baby proofing your home. A good resource is Safe, Secure Baby & Toddler: Effectively Baby Proof your Home and Car for the Safety of You & your Child.
When Can Children Learn to Cook?
The sooner your child can start to learn cooking, the sooner you can teach him or her about kitchen safety. A child who understands cooking will understand kitchen safety a lot better than a young child who is being taught abstract rules. The question is, how soon?
You know your child best, so it is up to you as a parent to judge when your child is ready to start learning some cooking skills. The first thing children usually do is stir ingredients in a bowl, before graduating to stirring food in a pot. Generally, experts recommend that a children should not be allowed to stir food in pots until they are tall enough to reach the pot while standing on the floor. This does not mean that your child cannot stir cold ingredients in a bowl, and it may be possible to place the bowl on a lower surface so that a step ladder or other object isn’t needed to stand on.
If you do decide to enable your child to stand on something so they can reach the counter, make sure it is a wide and stable object that will not wobble. Never, ever use a stool or chair! Use your best judgement and remember that it is okay to wait until your child is older when in doubt. Do NOT let someone guilt you into teaching your child to cook when he or she is not ready to learn proper cooking safety. Not all children will be ready at the same age. Despite information to the contrary, there is little advantage an in early introduction to cooking for children who are too small to be safe. Your older child will quickly learn the skills and ‘catch up’ to peers who receive early instruction.
There are, of course, many fun cooking activities that you can share with your child at an early age, such as frosting or decorating cupcakes, working with dough, etc. As well, there are many foods your child can learn to help you prepare that do not require knives, stoves, or any dangerous appliances. Sandwiches, desserts, snacks, and many other foods are a great way to start introducing cooking to the young.