To a young child, a staircase is the closest thing to an indoor playground. To you, it's an accident waiting to happen. According to a March 2012 study in the journal "Pediatrics," a child younger than 5 is treated in an emergency room for a stairs-related accident every six minutes. Safety-proofing your stairs is essential, but so is establishing safety rules your children know to obey.
Keep Stairs Clear
The average child can trip over thin air when he's in a hurry, and he's not always looking where he's going. For that reason, the National Safety Council advises that stairs always be kept clear of clutter. Explain to children that nothing -- not a sock, book, backpack or marble -- can ever be left on the stairs. If he has something in his hands at the bottom of the stairs, it must still be in his hands when he reaches the top. Make this an outdoor rule too, since children might be tempted to leave muddy shoes, toys or bike helmets on the steps leading up to the house. Since you can't control the clutter on staircases outside your home, it's worth teaching children to watch where they're walking whenever climbing stairs.
No Playing Allowed
In a child's eyes, a staircase makes the perfect pretend princess tower or imaginary pyramid just waiting to be scaled. Enforce a rule that stairs are to be used only for moving from one floor to the next -- no playing allowed. This is especially important for young children who are just learning to walk and see the stairs as a place to practice a new, exciting skill. If your little climber is just mastering the art of walking up steps, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends making a miniature staircase using sturdy items like foam blocks that he can use for practice.
Practice Safe Walking
"No running" is an order your child will hear hundreds of times from various well-meaning adults. While it's sound advice, phrasing this tip in a positive way might make more of an impact when you're setting staircase rules. Saying something like "Only walking feet are allowed on stairs" teaches him how he's supposed to use stairs rather than telling him what not to do. Also teach him that he should hold onto a railing whenever there is one, and that he should keep to the right side of a crowded staircase. Keep in mind that for young walkers, going face-first down stairs isn't necessarily the safest way. The AAP recommends teaching a new walker to go down stairs backwards, which can help keep him from falling.
Rules for You
When children use your staircases, it's your responsibility to make them safe. If your indoor stairs aren't already carpeted, look into installing carpet to prevent slipping. Carpet must be thoroughly tacked down so children can't trip on the edges or step on tacks. Install gates at the tops and bottoms of staircases to keep new walkers from climbing up or down while unattended. Child development website KidsHealth recommends using gates that are installed with hardware, rather than using pressure-mounted or accordion-style gates. If your staircase has a banister with spaces wide enough to trap a child's head, KidsHealth also recommends installing a banister guard. Never let a small child play unattended near a staircase, even a gated one. Take a look at outdoor steps after safety-proofing indoor staircases. If any stairs are chipping or crumbling, get them repaired before letting anyone use them.