Monday, 24 September 2012

On baby-proofing

The mood has taken me to write about stair-gates (is there a hyphen?) and reins etc. for babies and children.
In short, I do not partake.
In long:
Stair-gates were invented in, like, what? 1985? We certainly had none growing up. Yes, I fell down the stairs at the age of 2, I remember it well. But we all lived. Stair-gates are one of the "necessary" baby-proofing items you "must buy" as a parent. Along with cupboard keeper-closers, table-corner cushions and socket guards and the like.
I read somewhere about a westerner observing a baby in an African tribal village. The baby was at rolling-over age, not even sitting up yet. The baby played around at the perimeter of a deep (about 5 foot I think) pit, rolling over, sucking its toes, eating dirt, all the good things a baby of that age does. In short, the westerner was waiting for the baby to fall in, the Africans were all living their lives, trusting the baby not to fall, and it didn't. 
Babies don't have suicidal instincts. Yes, accidents happen from time to time. And yes, you need to keep your eye on your child. I'd say if you are going to be cooking dinner for 30 minutes in the kitchen, keep your baby in the room with you, give it pots to bang or a spoon to lick, don't give it the run of the house, obviously. 
So, stairgates. We don't, we never have. Nowadays I let my 14 month old crawl up the stairs if he wants to, me a few steps behind (except today when the builder kept me talking and I heard him going up alone). If you don't screech, make any sudden moves, or treat the stairs as a play-zone, you'll be fine. The stairs are for getting up or downstairs, that's what my kids have learned, we don't play there. We don't sit there with toys, I don't chase them upstairs, I don't even animate my voice around the stairs. The stairs, like the oven, the tv switches, the lamps, the fireplace, they are all places with their own rules, to be respected, not messed with. There's no drama. Normally I keep my baby in the room with me with the door closed. If he happens to escape, I'll follow him, if he's going upstairs, I'll go too. Recently in the evenings Noah's been wailing and crawling upstairs to actually go to bed, so we do. 

Reins. A horse needs reins, a dog needs a lead. A child needs a hand to hold or a sling to hold them, that's what I think. If they're too young to walk wherever you need to go, carry them. If you can't trust them not to run off, they're too young to walk, so carry them. Reins are another "parenting tool", like the playpen. The stumbling gait of the child on a set of reins is not the ideal way to learn to walk. Their balance is off, they don't know and you don't know if they lunge left/right will you hold them up in the air if they fall. This is not a way to learn to walk, nor is holding their hands aloft while they take stumbling steps. Nor is a baby "walker" on wheels, nor is a walking aid toy (zimmer-frames by Fisher Price, anyone?). Babies will learn to walk on their own, in their own time and in their own way, as they learned to crawl. Let them. Stop hovering and have a cup of tea. Let them figure it out themselves. Charlie walked 5 steps the day before his first birthday. Noah walked at 14 months. Some children are 10 months, or 17 months, what does it matter? In the long run they will all (hopefully) walk, talk and wipe their own bums without your help. Helicopter parenting breeds a great market. Walk into any baby shop and see all the gadgets and gizmos babies "need". It's staggering, and none of it is actually necessary. If so, how did the human race survive before "Mothercare" et al? 
Cupboard locks - nope. Our bleach bottle sits behind the toilet, child-proof bottle top closed, that's all we need. We are in the bathroom if our children are, so we'll divert their attention from the dangers, and explain as appropriate. Our kitchen cupboards are opened and explored from time to time, the kilner jar of lentils rolled around, the pasta shaken etc, there is no drama. Nothing is forbidden, so there is no drama, nothing is verboten, so there is no compulsion to explore. 
Table-corner cushions are an eyesore. We have a dining-room table where the table top is a sheet of tempered glass on wooden legs. Perfect height for gouging out a toddlers eye. Both children banged their heads once standing up under the table, and have avoided it ever since. They learn. 
Socket guards. If I was in the habit of leaving metal implements around I might invest in socket guards, but I'm not, so I don't. I heard a child would have to insert a metal rod into two socket holes, not just one, to get a current out of it, so the whole idea might just be another scare tactic to sell pieces of plastic. 
As I write Charlie is sewing a straight running stitch in a quilt at my feet. He's 4 and a quarter, and I've been letting him sew since he was 2. We'd start with a needle, thread and a sock, he'd end up with a balled-up sock and thread everywhere on it, around it and in it. Tonight is his first time sewing with intent ( a straight line) and he's doing great. I've never once told him to be careful, that he might prick himself, bleed, gouge his eyes out etc. When he started sewing I told him the needle is sharp, why it needs to be, and then left him to it. 
I don't use the term "be careful". It means nothing to a young child. It has so many variables. It's a concept that they can't grasp because they think literally. So I'll say instead "I trust you not to cut the sofa with those scissors" or "I know you're old enough to use a marker now, and you know to only draw on the paper" or "It's great you can flip a pancake and you know where's safe to touch on the cooker". Just this morning Charlie cooked himself a pancake all on his own, and was delighted with himself. He stood on a chair, turned on the ring, put butter on the pan with a knife, spread it around, put a spoon of batter on, turned it over with a spatula, etc. He can crack an egg successfully now, pour milk  out of a carton, spoon sugar into a cup, fold flour into a cake mix, sieve cocoa powder. He's been learning all along, and involved with the daily cookery since he was about 2. If I was to begin teaching him at age 6 or 7 to do these basic things, I think both he and I would get frustrated and overwhelmed. Like dressing himself, or learning to wash himself, it's life skills that he picks up a little at a time, helping his self-confidence and independence.
So, baby-proofing and "dangerous" activities like cooking are all relative. I think my mojo has returned, I've really enjoyed writing this post, and think I'll follow soon with our home education journey, and the baby steps we are taking in that area.
Don't even get me started on scratch mittens!

Niamh x


  1. I wish I could stop saying "be careful" to my 13 month old it drives me nuts when I hear myself saying it! I trust her I know she is just learning and I need to stop hovering. It is so bloody hard not to though!
    I'm with you on the letting kids learn stuff for themselves. I just need to relax more, easier said than done eh!

    1. Holly, being aware of it is the first thing! I read a great book called "Do not disturb" about how children learn best when not nagged by parents about the stuff they can figure out themselves. The trick is to recognise when they need a hand, and to be specific with your advice, good on you for even thinking about it though!

  2. Niamh - wait till you see our stairs.... they are the reason stair gates were invented!!!!

  3. Yeah she's back. Great post Niamh we didn't do stair gates either

  4. We grew up in a bungalow, so I've always been cautious around stairs, being unused to them as a child. Stairgates were one of the first baby-proofing items we installed, and even now my son is almost 3, we still have them up. I guess it's a lingering fear of stairs, from a bad fall I took myself on my sister-in-law's stairs (a simple slip because I was wearing socks instead of shoes), and because my cousin fell on her stairs more recently and broke her back. Almost six months in a body cast. And she was an adult.

    So while I see the sense in what you are saying, my preference based on personal experience is always going to be to aim for extra caution around the stairs and minimising risks on it.

    I viewed reins differently to you as well. For me, they were a great intermediary in learning to walk independently when out and about. My little guy hates holding hands, so without the reins, he would have been confined to a buggy or carrier for longer. Instead we used the reins for a couple of months, until he learned to walk by our sides.

    1. That's a bad run of luck around stairs in your family, Lisa, and I understand you'd be fearful for your child's safety after seeing your cousin so injured. My friend kept her stairgates up well into her child's 4th year, and just hadn't thought to take them down, it's a matter for every parent to gauge their child's co-ordination around stairs, while letting them learn to navigate them safely.
      We each do what's best for our family, because we have to live with the consequences of our choices. Thanks for sharing your experiences!

  5. I agree with most of you post, I dont do the socket covers, table cushions, cupboard locks but we do have stair gates as our stairs are lethal but are only needed until baby can go up and down themselves. My children can climb chairs and stools to get what they want as long as they do it correctly - Ive a brother inlaw that freaks when he sees it. My children also help me cook and chop and all that.

    My 2.5 yr old accidently touched the stove yesterday - Im so proud he didnt cry - we did the first aid and he matter of factly told me after that he wont touch the stove anymore - it burns fingers.

    And of course your last statement - scratch mittens? - Why? When I hear of people packing scratch mitten in their hospital bags I wonder why are they binding their newborns hands?

    1. I have friends and relations who freak at some stuff my children do so naturally, it's all about what we are used to. I'm sure you children love the sense of independence they get from being able to navigate the kitchen themselves.
      Sorry your son learned the hard way about the stove, I remember Charlie getting a fright after touching the hot radiator when he was younger, and never went near it again.
      Scratch mittens are my pet hate. Especially when babies are so deprived of the rest of their skin being in contact with anything, bundled in layers of clothes and feet covered, their hands are their only sensory device so to speak. And all for the fear that they might scratch themselves?! It's like putting the kid in a strait jacket! And just another thing you "need" to buy!
      Thanks for the comment!

  6. Hi Niamh, love this piece especially as we never got stairs gates either. 4 kids learned how to climb stairs with either myself or my husband behind them from about 8 months onwards. I didn't give it much thought on my first (now 15), except that they were a waste of money! But when my 3rd boy fell from the top of the stairs to the bottom and had his fall broken by my oldest I knew I was right-he still talks to this day about how he saved his brothers life! x Gail


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