Babies and toddlers are curious creatures. Something captures their attention — a stuffed animal, a shiny object or a noisy rattle — and they're going after it. Just make sure they aren't chasing a teddy bear on top of a dresser, the blade of a knife or a pill bottle. Babyproofing is key to keeping children safe at home.
"Parents should realize that injuries are the leading cause of death in children over 1 year of age," and many are preventable, says Dr. Garry Gardner, chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Committee on Injury, Violence, and Poison Prevention. The most common injuries are burns, cuts, bruises and head and other injuries from falls, he says.
For generations, new parents made homes baby-ready themselves. These days, you can do it yourself, hire a professional or both. It's part of a larger trend toward more watchful, safety-conscious parenting.
"Using professionals saves time and gives peace of mind, but diligent parents are capable of babyproofing their own homes," says Shannon Choe, who offers home safety assessments as founder of Premier Baby Concierge in Berwyn, Pa. She says her clients are about evenly split.
New parents have some time before they need to babyproof, since newborns aren't going anywhere just yet. But time passes quickly. Experts recommend staying ahead of a baby's development by a milestone — for instance, blocking the top and the bottom of the stairs before a child is on the move.
Eventually, you'll need to lock up cleaning products, medicine and plastic bags, clear the house of choking and strangulation hazards (including the cords of drapes and blinds) and block access to dangerous areas, among other things.
Furniture or TVs that could topple should be anchored to the walls. Toddlers might use dresser drawers "like stepladders," and an accident can happen in an instant, says Colleen Driscoll, executive director of the International Association for Child Safety, a professional organization for baby- and childproofers that was founded in 1997.
Professionals may be called for a top-to-bottom job or just to install a single gate, she says.
"Most of our clients aren't very comfortable drilling holes in their own home, and they usually have us do that," says proofer Jack Smith, founder of Dallas area InfantHouse. "Some of the lighter installation they can elect to do themselves."
The babyproofing industry began about 20 years ago. Driscoll's association has about 110 childproofers as members in the United States, she says. It is launching a certification program, with the first certifications expected this year.
Professionals are familiar with safety products and can determine which ones are right for a home, saving parents multiple trips to the store, Driscoll says. Pros also can teach parents about dangers they might not think of.
"Children grow and develop very quickly, and sometimes parents are caught off guard in what they're capable of doing," Driscoll says. "We want them to understand and be ahead of their children before they find the trouble."
The cost of professional babyproofing varies. Smith charges $100 for a room-by-room consultation and product recommendation, which clients receive whether they hire the company to do the installation or not.
To babyproof a 4,000-square-foot house — the average size of his clients' homes, he says — he charges $3,000 to $4,000, while a single-story ranch smaller than 2,000 square feet would cost about $800. The prices include products and installation.
To do it yourself, experts recommend the age-old trick of dropping to all fours and looking for hazards from a child's vantage point. To learn what you're looking for, check online sources such as the academy's healthychildren.org, babyproofing checklists and do-it-yourself books.
"People say it's very easy if you have the right tools," says Debra Holtzman, author of The Safe Baby (Sentient Publications, revised edition 2009). "It is overwhelming if you have no guidance."
Her book offers chapters on nursery, kitchen and bathroom safety and preventing falls. No matter who does the safety improvements, she urges parents to pay attention.
"If someone else does it for you and you're not involved, you may not have skills to do it later on," she said.
Parents should research products and choose those certified by the Juvenile Products Manufacturing Association, Holtzman says.
Avoiding products recalled by the government is also important. Check recalls.gov or sign up on the site to be notified when recalls are issued, Holtzman says. And mail product registration cards to be notified of company recalls.
Once the home is proofed, don't put your feet up for long. Safety experts suggest reassessing periodically because hazards change as a child grows.
"It's wonderful to watch them grow and learn . . . but their own natural curiosity can do them in if you're not setting some boundaries," says Choe.
And gates, latches and locks are no substitute for a parent's watchful eye. As Holtzman cautions, "No child safety device is 100 percent perfect."