I ditched the baby gate and let my kid eat dirt—and I was a better mom for it

There’s a reason why experienced parents seem more relaxed: They’ve learned what you really need to worry about and what you don't.

photo: iStockPhoto

When you have a baby, safety suddenly becomes a major priority. If you’re like most parents, you go looking for the best ways to guard against accidents, injuries and trauma of any kind. The first port of call, of course, is those services and products that claim to “babyproof” your home. There are zillions of them, from high-end, bespoke consultants who will custom-fit your house with baby gates and toilet bowl locks to the cheaper plastic kits you can buy at any hardware store.

The problem is, none of them really work. I’m not saying that they don’t do their job. Technically, they do. Baby gates make it complicated for everyone in your family, including the baby, to go up and down the stairs. Fiddly cupboard and drawer locks impede your ability to do basic household chores, like get things out of the cupboards. But here’s one thing they won’t do: make your house a truly secure and safe environment for you and your baby. For that, you need to be a calm, emotionally secure parent. You need to be truly confident in the belief that your home is a safe space in which to raise an infant. You need to believe it. To reach this higher level of parenting consciousness, you need to babyproof your life, not just your house. And in most cases, that higher level of babyproofing only comes with hard-won experience.

baby climbing stairsWhen your baby starts climbing

In a recent (and completely unscientific) poll of parents I know who have three children or more, I discovered that I know only one mother of three who bothered with babyproofing accessories with her youngest child—and this may well have been because her husband is an actuary. The reason why most experienced parents give up old-fashioned babyproofing isn’t because they love their youngest child any less. It’s because, over time, they learn to weigh the hassles of baby gates with the demonstrable risk of their child tumbling head first down the stairs. At this point, many parents (including myself) conclude that it’s better to teach your child not to fall down stairs by a) generally keeping an eye on them and b) teaching them to crawl up and down the stairs safely as soon as they are able. As for cupboards and drawers, I find shouting “For the love of God, stop that now!” is an effective deterrent to curious little hands. (I’ve employed a similar technique to dissuade my baby from eating dirt out of the potted plants with somewhat mixed results.)

Reflecting on all the stuff I don’t do with my youngest child that I did with my eldest (from basic safety measures to library singalongs to extended bedtime routines), I realized that there is a whole other kind of babyproofing that many experienced parents engage in once they are battle-weary veterans. And, unlike those sticky pads you put on coffee table corners, it will truly improve your quality of life and bring you real peace of mind. Here’s my list of how to babyproof your life for the sake of your own sanity and your baby’s emotional security.

1. Invest in a babysitter. I don’t care if it’s your mom, your niece or the dreamy kid from down the street, find an experienced, trustworthy sitter and get in the habit of using him or her. Even if it’s just for a stroll around the block for a couple of hours after the baby’s gone to sleep, your mental health will thank you for it. As with lifeguards, caregivers need to take breaks if they’re going to stay sharp. In this way, baby-care breaks are a parenting win-win.

2. Never refuse help. Don’t turn down offers of help from loved ones, and don’t give into the impulse to criticize those who offer it. Does your husband fasten the diapers all wrong? Is your mother-in-law hopeless at swaddling? Does your sister forget to turn on the white noise machine? If so, you need to learn to shut up about it. Repeat after me: “Why, yes, thank you, I would love it if you’d come over and hold the baby while I take a shower. How about Tuesday at 10 a.m.?” Remember, the saying goes “It takes a village to raise a child,” not “It takes an anxious, hypervigilant perfectionist to raise a child.”

3. Exercise helps. It really does. Even the gentlest level of activity can make an enormous difference in your mood and well-being. A few minutes a day of walking or yoga while the baby naps is all it takes. Do yourself a favour and make it a priority.

4. Use a meal service. You know those meal delivery services where they send you all the recipe ingredients, pre-measured and packaged, and all you have to do is follow three easy steps and you have a healthy home-cooked meal? I always thought they were for idiots who didn’t own a measuring cup—until I had a baby and decided they were the best thing since pizza delivery (and healthier, too).

5. Get a really good smartphone, wireless headphones and every streaming app on the market. Those 3 a.m. feeds are so much easier when you have Alicia from The Good Wife to keep you company.

6. Simplify your baby’s bedtime routine. Do not rock, do not shush and do not sing lullabies while performing a lavender-scented oil massage. Do not read Goodnight Moon to a four-month-old—the four- month-old can’t understand the story! All he understands is “Wow, this bedtime routine sure goes on forever. Cool, man.” Many experts will dispute this, but I’m telling you from hard-won experience: A complicated bedtime routine just leads to an even more complicated one down the road. When it comes to a bedtime routine to get your baby to drift off to la-la-land, the simpler, the better.

7. If you’re worrying about it, that probably means you don’t have to worry about it. My first son was a late walker. When he was 15 months old, I took him to the GP and demanded to know what I was doing so wrong that my son was failing to hit his milestones. I took my son to sing-and-sign, baby swim lessons and playgroups. I stimulated his motor skills. I fed him a strict diet of grass-fed milk, antioxidants and flavonoids. The doctor patiently heard me out and then said calmly, with a smile, “If you’re worrying about it, that probably means you don’t have to worry about it.” This rule applies to baby care and most aspects of adult life as well. Learn it, live by it and start enjoying your baby. And remember, worry is no substitute for love.

Read more:
Babyproofing: Should you do it?
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