This Old House: Where do I even start babyproofing this deathtrap?

I have a panic attack every time I think about childproofing. I live in an old Victorian house with odd-sized doors, cabinets that don’t close, wobbly book shelves and floor lamps everywhere. Am I doomed? Please help! – Secretly Hoping the Kid Never Learns to Walk

Dear Secretly Hoping,

Okay. Take a breath. Childproofing is another one of those lovely freak-out milestones of new parenthood, somewhere between SIDS and Pre-K applications. The usual advice is to get down to your kid’s (literal) level, and see where the hazards are. When you look at the house through the eyes of your toddler, it’s just one deathtrap after another. Stairs loom. Sockets beckon. Then those helpful catalogs arrive in the mail hawking products. Easy-to-install – only minor permanent damage to your furniture! And so completely essential to the safety of your child that not buying them could constitute neglect. In fact, you wonder if you shouldn’t just sell your house and move your family into a padded room for the next five years. We hear there are some vacancies at the local loony bin.

There is a way to get through this without moving out. You can start with some basic childproofing advice. Then, you will probably want to prioritize so you don’t make yourself crazy. As you scope your house, consider whether there might be a specific area you could designate as child-safe, and just pay close attention to your baby when you’re out of the baby-proof zone. Think of it this way: before there was childproofing, there were playpens. It may not be the most desirable thing conceptually, or aesthetically, but it can make it possible for you to get the doorbell or pee or otherwise luxuriate in a few seconds of me-time. Find a consistent verbal signal to use for danger. If not “no,” maybe “yucky,” “ouch,” “off,” “not safe” or “not for baby.” Use it exclusively for situations that are off-limits. This is a long-term project, as your baby doesn’t know how to talk yet. But it’s important. You’d be amazed what even pre-verbal kids can learn with constant repetition and reinforcement.

Here are some specific concerns for the This Old House set:

LEAD. LEAD. LEAD.

Any old house with old paint almost certainly contains lead. Even not-so-old houses (pre 1978) are likely to have lead paint. We don’t have to tell you that lead is a big deal. But we will tell you that it’s a good idea to have your house tested if you think there’s a chance of lead paint chips or dust that your baby might be able to access. You can also test your baby for lead exposure with a very simple finger prick test. Ask your pediatrician about it – this test is recommended for all babies who are at risk (which is surprisingly many – see this easy screening quiz to see if yours might be).

If there is some exposed lead paint, it needs to be patched and covered. Do not sand. Do not do renovations on lead painted areas. These things kick up existing lead big time. You may also want to have your water tested as lead can be transferred from old pipes. Here’s a more complete source of info on lead safety. Here also is a thorough Babble dispatch about lead.

LOOSE WIRING.

Especially an issue if you complement your vintage architecture with vintage electronics, but even new stuff presents a risk. Babies chew on cords. They can also get caught in them. If there are any dodgy bits of exposed wiring, get an electrician in to deal.

TOXIC CRAP.

If your cupboards are too hard to secure with various purchased securing gadgets (there are lots) or you don’t have the inclination, just move all the nasty stuff up out of kids’ reach: In the bathroom, the kitchen, the basement, the bedroom:

TOPPLING FURNITURE.

Heavy items may be easier to pull over if they’re on slanted or rickety floors or wobbly tables. You can buy earthquake-proof straps to anchor big pieces like bookcases to the wall. Falling TVs are no joke. Consider stability and fragility when you arrange your lighting and d’cor.

STAIRCASES.

Get strong, properly installed gates, especially at the top of staircases. Pressure gates can pop out of place. You will need to drill holes to get these suckers secure. It’s worth it. Also make sure banisters aren’t so loose they could collapse.

WINDOWS.

Use window guards on all windows your child can access.

HEATERS.

You didn’t mention these, but in case you have them, old in-floor heaters – the grates in the floor through which hot air blows – can cause serious burns. For a helpful discussion on floor heaters, look here. If you have exposed radiators or pipes, they can be covered or insulated.

WEIRD RANDOM THINGS WE IMAGINE YOU MIGHT COME ACROSS.

Loose nails poking up: Fast slamming old metal screen doors (babies love to play with swinging doors!): Rusty old plant wires sticking up out of the ground in the front yard: We can’t – hell, even the good people at One Step Ahead can’t anticipate all your safety needs. So look around your house and then go to the safety product catalog/checklist. Not the other way around. You may also benefit from some professional (or highly skilled amateur) assistance in bringing your vintage home up to modern safety standards, but you’ll have to decide if this is something you’re up for financially.

Keep in mind that few houses can be totally child-proofed. Even fabulously modern ones have their risks (sharp edges, glass walls, entire buildings cantilevered off rocky cliffs). And then there’s the rest of the world, which hasn’t exactly been designed for lickers and crawlers. So in here, just like out there, you do the best you can to keep your kid safe: while keeping yourself sane.

Have a question? Email beingpregnant@babble.com

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