You put up baby gates throughout the house to keep your newly mobile kiddo safe, but they could have the opposite effect. A 2014 study by the Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Ohio discovered nearly 1,800 little ones wind up in the emergency room every year because of baby gate-related injuries. These kids sustain everything from sprains and strains to traumatic brain injuries because gates collapse or are left open.
But that doesn’t mean you should give up on gates. “Baby gates are essential safety devices for parents and caregivers, and they should continue to be used,” says Lara McKenzie, the study’s co-author and a researcher at the hospital’s Center for Injury Research and Policy. “It is important, however, to make sure you are using a gate that meets the current safety standards and is the right type of gate for where you are planning to use it.”
To help avoid common mistakes, childproofing experts reveal their top dos and don’ts for safe and secure baby-gate installation.
The top of the stairs is the most common area for parents to put up a gate. But this is no place for a pressure-mounted gate, which a child could push out of the way. The bar at the bottom of these gates is also a tripping hazard for parents and can cause severe injuries, says Yehudah Franken, owner of Babyproofers Ltd. in Toronto. Instead, he recommends a hardware-mounted gate. Sure, it requires putting a few small holes in the wall and is more difficult to assemble, but it’s much safer for you and your kids.
Baby gates may look like a cinch to put together, but reading the manual is key. For example, parents might not know that retractable fabric gates have to be set back at least six inches from the top of the stairs so kids don’t push against them and slip underneath. Franken has been in the child-safety business for 23 years and has corrected all sorts of DIY mishaps. “I had one client put the parts on upside down and backward,” he says. Mistakes like that can render a gate useless.
Manufacturers supply plastic plugs to screw the baby gate into the drywall, but experts agree they aren’t strong enough. Plugs are meant to withstand downward pressure—like a hanging picture—not the outward swing of a gate, so they could eventually pop out. The best option is to screw the gate into solid wood—no plugs needed. If a wall stud isn’t located where you want to place the gate, you’ll need to build a frame, mounting a piece of wood vertically on each side of the gate. Attach the frame to drywall using a toggle bolt (also called a butterfly anchor) or to a wooden stairwell post to ensure it’s secure. (Don’t worry about holes—they can easily be filled later.) You can also move the framing to a stud and opt for an angle-mount gate if the opposite stud or stairwell post isn’t directly across from it.
“People are puzzled by baseboards,” says Franken. “I see people cut away baseboards, afraid to drill into them.” The trick is adding a spacer (a small block of wood) the same thickness as the baseboard between the drywall and the frame. That creates a strong, flat vertical surface to securely screw the gate into.
Child-safety experts can install a gate just about anywhere, including on glass and steel railings. But they understand not everyone can fork over the cash to hire someone for the job. “Even if I don’t get your business, my advice is free,” says Franken, who encourages people to email him a picture of their setup so he can offer tips. “Your child’s safety is important to me.”
Pinterest is littered with aesthetically pleasing homemade gates, but they might not meet child-safety standards and likely don’t include automatic locks and a two-step opening. A proper baby gate fastener requires an adult to both push it with their thumb and lift to open it.
Babies and toddlers are naturally curious. When they have easy access to the bottom of a staircase, they’re likely going to try climbing it. After they get up a few steps, how will they get back down? Likely the hard way. “Putting a gate at the bottom of the stairs is for your child’s safety and your sanity,” comments Franken.
Parents sometimes leave a large gap under baby gates to accommodate baseboards or the family cat. But this means kids can crawl underneath, too—or at least try. “I tell parents that the gate is for the baby; cats can jump. No gate will keep a cat out,” says Franken. Keep the space between the bottom of the gate and the floor to less than three inches to prevent injuries.
“When they get to a certain age, kids can just climb over a gate, which can pose a whole other set of hazards,” observes Gil Redden, owner of Vancouver Baby Proofers. He recommends removing gates when children can get up and down the stairs safely. If gates are still required for a younger sibling, then teach the older child to open and close the gate themselves, or ask a parent to open and close it for them. Parents should also go through the gates properly, rather than stepping over. Ultimately, kids learn by example.
If your child has figured out how to climb over a gate, you may be tempted to stack one on top of another to increase the overall height. But unless the gate was specifically made to be able to do this, and includes instructions for proper installing, it's not safe, and can lead to serious injury—or worse.