Harnesses for toddlers

Kat Gibbs hated the idea of harnesses for kids. Then she had twins

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Twins can make you change your mind about a lot of things. Kat Gibbs says that she hated the idea of harnesses for kids: “I remember thinking, How awful, kids are not dogs.” She never considered using one with her first child, John. Then she had twins.

“We were out for a walk when John was four and Troy and Rebecca were eighteen months and had just learned to walk,” Gibbs recalls. “John ran down to the creek, Troy ran down the path one way and Rebecca took off in the opposite direction. I was terrified and didn’t know who to go after first.” She was able to call John away from the creek and send him to catch Rebecca, while she ran after Troy. But she realized that relying on a four-year-old to retrieve a toddler wasn’t the best solution. That afternoon she went out and bought harnesses for the twins.

Yes, we’ve all seen harnesses misused, and some children hate them. But can they be a useful way to keep a toddler safe? Valerie Lee, executive director of the Infant and Toddler Safety Association in Kitchener, Ont., says yes. A harness can keep a toddler from straying in a crowded or dangerous place, while still allowing some freedom. “In fact, it can be more comfortable for the child than having to hold a parent’s hand with one arm up in the air,” she says.

Other parents are just not comfortable, philosophically, with harnesses. They might choose to restrict their outings to places where their toddlers can wander away a bit and still be safe, such as fenced-in playgrounds, or stick to the “hold my hand or we go home” rule.

Gibbs says she found some unexpected benefits to using harnesses. “When I had the twins in the harnesses, people were more aware of us as being part of a group, and they would walk around us,” she says. “If I was just walking with the kids in a mall or on a sidewalk, people would often walk between me and the children, making it harder for me to keep an eye on them.”

On outings she would generally put the harnesses on the twins, then tuck the strap into the back of the harness, with just the handle sticking out. “If they were walking with me, I wouldn’t hold onto the strap. If they started to wander away, I could quickly grab the handle,” she says. “With three kids, it really helped that I could hold the handles of both harnesses in one hand and hold John’s hand with the other.” Gibbs also likes that the harnesses allow her kids to walk around and get some exercise, rather than be strapped into a stroller for hours at a time.

Is a harness a good idea for your toddler? Lee says it’s a personal decision that depends upon your child’s temperament and family situation: “In one family, you might have one child where the parent never even considers a harness because the child always stays close, another child where it really helps, and a third who hates the harness so much he won’t even walk with it on.”

Cautions about harnesses

Lee points out:

• Harnesses are not a regulated product, so they may vary significantly in quality and design. If you decide to use a harness, look for one that is well made and comfortable for your child.

• Straps that fasten to the child’s wrist with Velcro (rather than a harness that fits over the child’s chest) are generally not worth buying, says Lee. “Most toddlers will quickly figure out how to whip the Velcro strap off, and then they’re gone.”

• The strap that connects to the adult should be about three feet long. Longer straps can be a hazard.

• Harnesses should never be used when kids are climbing on playground equipment, rocks or stairs, where there’s a risk of entanglement.

• Harnesses should never be used to tie a child to a railing or to another child. “The strap should only be in the hands of a responsible adult,” says Lee.

• The child walking on the harness should be in front of or beside you. “The harness shouldn’t be used to pull the child along,” Lee says. “It’s to help you stay connected to them while giving them the freedom to walk and explore a little.”