Property: Get the house ready for baby

Do It Yourself: Homes, with their sharp corners, heavy doors and hot ovens, can be war zones for tiny children. David Bowen explains how to guard against the perils without being over-protective
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The Independent Online
"I knew a family that put foam rubber on the corners of all the tables and chairs in the house," a father says. "The furniture started looking like a bunch of skateboarders."

"I didn't do anything," another parent says. "I believe it stops them learning what will hurt them."

It is a question that every parent has to ponder. What should they do to protect their children from objects that lurk around the house, ready to trip, poke or otherwise assault their offspring? They might also admit, at least to themselves, that they would not mind protecting the house against the children and, perhaps most important, their own nerves against fraying.

The two types above illustrate the extremes. It is possible not only to convert the furniture into skateboarders, but also to make your neighbours suspect you of plastic fetishism. At Mothercare, Boots and the like, you can buy a plethora of "childproofing" items, all for some reason made out of white plastic.

Your cupboards can be locked with white plastic, your windows restrained with white plastic tags, your freezer door kept closed with white plastic, your toilet seat kept shut with white plastic.

All of which creates sympathy with parents who say that any form of child-proofing is an abnegation of responsibility. They believe it is their duty both to keep a vigilant eye on their children and to teach them what is sensible and what is not. One father even held a "falling out of bed" session with his son after which, he says, the child stayed firmly on the mattress; no bed rail was needed.

Most of us are not so hardline. While we may theoretically agree that nothing can replace eyes in the back of the head and education, we believe that a certain degree of protection is prudent, for the child, for ourselves and for the house. The key lies in the child. Our eldest, who is now three, has always been extraordinarily meek. We put blanking plugs in some of the electric sockets, but we need not have bothered. He never pulled anything off a table, never hurled a book. The only thing he ever fed into a video cassette recorder was a video cassette.

Then the next one arrived. At 16 months, she is busy making up for our son's lack of adventure. If she sees a cup within range, or out of it, she will try to grab it. She is not, however, wilfully destructive - but plenty of kids are. If something is together, they want it apart and the parts to be as far apart as possible. A book still on a bookshelf is an affront.

The trick, therefore, is to balance your own philosophy with the propensities of your child, before deciding how far to childproof your house.

The next question is how much to do yourself. A careful piece of carpentry will look vastly superior to a bought (white) child gate, though there are pleasant enough wooden versions. You may be able to replace the inevitable white plastic restraints with devices that fit in better with your decor.

Perhaps the biggest danger cannot be guarded against by physical devices. Hot cups of tea and coffee are a serious danger to children - nothing can replace out-of-reach shelves or vigilance if you want to keep them unscolded.

What we really need, of course, is a bit of genetic re-engineering: wouldn't it be handy if parents automatically grew eyes in the back of their heads?

WHAT TO BUY AND WHAT TO LEAVE ON THE SHELF

Here is a selection of products in descending order of priority. The list is subjective, though drawing on a consensus of parental views and advice from Practical Householder magazine. Some of the ideas are sensible whether or not you have children. Except where mentioned, all prices are from Mothercare.

Essential

Smoke alarm. From pounds 5. Fit one in the hall and one on the ceiling near the children's room. Alarms are available that can tell the difference between cooking smells and fires.

Worth considering

Bed rail. pounds 19.99. Unless you are prepared to have falling-out-of-bed sessions, get a rail for when your child moves out of the cot. Wooden ones look pleasant enough and are easy to fit, if a bit fiddly to swing up and down.

Socket covers in bedroom and play areas. Blanking plugs (pounds 2.50 for six) are fine for sockets that are not used much, otherwise get ones with flaps (pounds 2.99 for four). I know one woman who in her infancy would head towards sockets with two fingers outstretched - for such as these, put in blanks everywhere.

Fire guard. Essential for open fires, because they stop coal and logs falling out. Whether you need one for a gas fire is a matter of judgement: "Our daughter won't even go into a room when a fire is on," one father says. Others head straight for heat: screw the guard into the wall.

Oven door heat sensor. Best solution is to teach children to keep away from cookers, for example by creating an invisible line they must not cross. If that doesn't work, and you cannot exclude them from the kitchen, a Seeheat label (pounds 1.99 for five from Texas) changes from red to blue when the temperature rises above 45 degrees centigrade.

Carbon monoxide detector. Stick it near a gas or coal fire and it changes colour when the dangerous gas is given off (pounds 4.99 from Texas).

Brackets and screws. If your child likes pulling things to see what happens, fit brackets to hold tall bookcases to the wall.

Window catches. Stops children opening windows too far. In white plastic for pounds 3.99, or use carefully-positioned blocks of wood; they look better, though they also stop parents opening the window.

Window bars. Another way of stopping your children making escape bids. Brightly-coloured balls on the bars create a toy-cum-abacus.

Stair gates. If you fit a gate at the top and bottom of every set of stairs, you will soon be leaving them open, but if you have a large house gates can be useful to create "zones". You at least know your child is not in the attic when you are in the basement.

Do you really need these?

Corner protectors. pounds 2.50 for four. Unless you like white plastic patches on your tables, isn't it better to let children discover the hard way that it is not a good idea to walk into corners?

Toilet seat lock. pounds 3.99. We have a pair of rubber gloves to fish the odd plastic animal out. Much cheaper and less fiddly.

VCR blanking strip. There is a juvenile tendency that puts toys into VCRs, and a strip will stop them. Most children quickly learn that they will not be able to watch Snow White if they continue to feed the machine, and stop.

Non-slam doorstop. pounds 2.99. Kids who pinch their fingers will learn that doors can be dodgy things - but not if you stop the doors closing.

Drawer and cupboard catches. pounds 3.99 for five. White plastic horrors - only for the utterly, completely untrainable child.

Fridge/freezer safety catch. pounds 2.50. As above.

Safety film for glass. pounds 14.99 for 12sqft. If you think that your child might fall through glass, you can either fit laminated glass (as used in car windscreens) or stick this plastic safety film over your existing windows. This is a solution, perhaps, only for seriously nervous parents with seriously uncontrollable children.

Cooker guard. Can, in theory, prevent children pulling saucepans off the cooker. We bought one and could not fit it - now we just keep the children away.

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