Q&A: babyproofing

Meghan writes:

My seven-month old seems seconds away from crawling, so my husband and I have stopped procrastinating and are babyproofing the house. I don't want my house to be wrapped in foam, but I do want to have a safe environment. We've installed a gate at the top of the stairs and plugged up all the outlets. We have kitchen cabinet locks and a foam edge for the fireplace.  I want to be reasonable about it, but I got overwhelmed shopping for babyproofing products--I spent far too much time examining babyproofing product websites--if they make a foam bumper helmet, maybe I need it?! Maybe I do need to anchor my bookshelves to the wall? I'm beginning to feel irrational about this and my husband is skeptical that we need any of it. How much babyproofing is reasonable?

And a second issue: yesterday my MIL scoffed at our plug covers and said she wouldn't babyproof her house, she would just keep an eye on the baby (as if I don't ever watch my daughter and that is why I am babyproofing my house). My inlaws live nearby and want to babysit at their house. I want to insist that they do a minimal amount of babyproofing if they are going to babysit there, but how much is reasonable?"

Everyone's going to have a different position on this. I think people mostly break down into three types of babyproofers: people who babyproof everything they possibly can, people who only babyproof things that would kill the kid or make them want to kill the kid, and people who babyproof nothing. As usual, I'm weighing in with a vote for moderation, both for the parents' sake and for the kids' sake.

People who babyproof everything are obviously doing it out of love, but I think they're driving themselves crazy trying to imagine every possible dangerous scenario. They're also taking the chance that their children won't learn to be properly impressed with dangerous situations and will do risky things later on just because they don't know they're dangerous. What if the coffee table at home is padded but it isn't at a friend's, and the kid runs right into the corner at high speed because she never got bumped gently by the coffee table at home while she was crawling? Too much protection gives kids a false idea of the basic principles of physics, as well as the capabilities of their own bodies. Plus, there's always something more you can do, so you're setting yourself up for a nervous breakdown.

The moderate route is to think about the situations that are truly dangerous (serious injury or death) and protect for those. So gating off stairs, plugging up outlets, and putting locks on cabinets and drawers containing poisonous stuff. Walk around with your head down low and look for things that could kill or seriously hurt a child at a crawling and walking level. Then think about things that would make you despair or rage if they were disturbed, like tall towers of CDs, wine racks, flat-panel televisions, original artwork. Gate them off and you'll be able to enjoy life so much more, knowing your child isn't going to cause $3,000 worth of damage in 2 minutes or make you spend 30 minutes picking up discs and putting them back in their cases.

Part of this moderate approach is realizing that not all kids are attracted to the same things. We went to friends' house once and El Chico made a beeline for the unguarded wine rack and began pulling out bottles. The dad was shocked, because their daughter had never shown the least bit of interest in the wine. But they had a lock on the refrigerator, which I thought was goofy until I learned that their daughter liked to go in and yank the carton of milk off the shelf, spilling it all over the floor. Similarly, I thought toilet locks were overkill until my nephew stuffed a golf ball down my SIL's toilet and the plumber couldn't get it out and had to replace the whole toilet. A toilet lock is way cheaper than a toilet. So you should cover the basics, but keep an eye out for what attracts your particular kid and be prepared to act swiftly if you need to put up gates or locks or just move the items up to a high shelf.

Speaking of shelves, if you have a climber, you should make sure all your shelves are anchored to the wall so your child won't pull one on top of him/herself while trying to climb one. Having said that, only our heaviest shelf is anchored, because neither of our boys has tried to climb shelves. Again, you need to watch and learn from your own kid.

People who babyproof nothing are operating under the assumption that 1) they're going to be right on top of the kid all the time, and 2) a child will learn to avoid or negotiate the things in his/her environment. I do believe that kids become fluent in navigating their environments with time, even once that have dangerous objects. But. I also don't want to trust that I'm going to be 100% on top of my child every second of the day, when it comes to things like toxic chemicals and electricity. Maybe some parents are that vigilant, but I do things like cooking meals, going to the bathroom, sneezing, and answering the phone, and sometimes just spacing out or sneaking into another room to eat a few spoonsful of Ben and Jerry's.

I'd rather just eliminate one source of stress by plugging up the outlets and gating stairs and locking up the bleach. My older son is 4.5 and he has no interest in sticking objects into our outlets, despite our having plugged them up when he was a toddler. So I think that kids will learn the important lessons if you keep reinforcing them, even if they aren't given free reign to experience logical consequences. Especially when the logical consequence is death.

So I'd tell your MIL that if she won't plug up the outlets (and proof any other cause of potential death, like a swimming pool or tall set of stairs) then your daughter can't be there for more than 10-15 minutes at a time. She doesn't need to pad her fireplace (although it should be gated in some way while there's a fire going in it, obviously) or her furniture, but electrical outlets are no joke. If she continues to scoff, then no babysitting until your daughter is older. (And yes, you're the mother, and you get to make this decision, and if you let your MIL overrule you now it will never stop. But you already know that, which is why you wrote me to get some validation.:)) If you show up at her house with the outlet plugs, then she's going to look like a real ass if she doesn't let you put them in her outlets.

BTW, my #1 top pick for Most Useful Babyproofing Object is the Safety 1st outlet cover that has a new plate that you switch in for the regular plate. It has notches on it so you can plug cords into the outlets, then snap a cover over the plate so that the cords stay plugged in but protected. Kids can yank on the cords, but they can't pull them out of the outlets or make any sparks. They let you keep floor lamps or other applicances plugged in but not a hazard. Pure genius, and I hope they make a bazillion dollars off this idea. I got mine at Buy Buy Baby but of course OneStepAhead.com has them, too.

It sounds to me like you've already got your house covered. Unless your kid has a major balance problem or clotting/bruising disease, you can skip the helmet. Every kid has to go through months and months of bumps and bruises to learn how to negotiate the world. You just need to protect them from serious injuries, not all possible problems. Good luck with your MIL.