Out of harm's way

Safety: Parents call in the experts to baby-proof their houses

June 13, 1999|By Peter Jensen | By Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

On the same day 10-month-old Katie almost took a tumble down the stairs, the Malinowski home got professionally baby-proofed.

Katie wasn't injured; she actually laughed when she hit the second step and her mother scooped her up. But within hours, a pair of workers installed a gate to block the stairs, and it was her parents' turn to smile. "It used to be you could put her on the floor and she'd stay," sighed Carolyn Malinowski, Katie's mother. "Next time, we might not have been so lucky."

Like most homes, the Malinowskis' townhouse in White Marsh was once a veritable minefield of potential hazards for their toddler. Some were obvious -- cleaning supplies in a kitchen cabinet, open electrical outlets, unlocked toilets -- but some were not.

Who knew that the little rubber pads on door stops can be pried off and become a choking hazard? Or that an unanchored bookshelf can topple over? And how do you attach a gate to a banister anyway?

The Malinowskis knew because they hired consultants -- often known as baby-proofing or child-proofing specialists -- who pointed out the problems, recommended solutions and installed, among other things, the much-needed gate.

"Chances are, a first-time parent has never had to deal with any of this," said Colleen Driscoll, co-owner of Baby's Home Safe Home, the gate's installer. "A lot of parents are hiring us because they feel overwhelmed."

The baby-proofer, a specialty unheard-of as recently as the 1980s, has become an increasingly popular attraction for fledgling families concerned about the leading cause of death and injury for young children: accidents in the home.

Each year about 2,600 children in the U.S. die from accidental injuries in their homes, according to the National Safe Kids Campaign, a nationwide coalition of safety-related government and private agencies. About 4.5 million children are treated annually in hospitals for home injuries.

Of those deaths and injuries, about two-thirds occur to children age 4 and under, the records indicate.

Small wonder that there has been a virtual explosion in home safety equipment in the 1990s, from devices to tie up loose electrical cords to stickers that warn when a baby's bathwater is too hot.

But aside from car seats and cribs, it is a largely unregulated field. Government agencies like the Consumer Products Safety Commission don't require most child safety products to be tested before they are put on the market.

The average new parent soon discovers that it's not easy figuring out what works. For the less-than-handy, installing child-proof gates and latches can be a particularly frustrating endeavor. "They buy junk in the stores and they bring it home and have no idea how to put it in, or they put it in wrong," said Steve Weinstein, a baby-proofing specialist in Summit, N.J. "They can even be dangerous if they give parents a false sense of security."

Baby-proofers like Driscoll and her partner, Darla Byerly, start by visiting a client's home and assessing its dangers. Then they recommend products -- usually from a variety of manufacturers -- that can help.

The initial home inspection costs $85. They also charge for the products and their installation. For clients of Lutherville-based Baby's Home Safe Home, the average bill may run from $250 to $650.

"Cabinet latches that don't fit, don't work," said Byerly. "Unless you really research, it's hard to know what's suitable."

Byerly and Driscoll started their business a year ago. They met through a mothers support group at a local hospital. Both have young children -- Julia Byerly, 20 months; Patrick Driscoll, 17 months -- and both knew the challenge of making a house safe.

"As a parent, you just want a little peace of mind," said Driscoll. "No house is perfectly safe for a baby. But when you leave your child with a baby-sitter, you want to know that you're pretty well covered."

Neither has much formal training in baby-proofing; mostly they draw on their own research and on-the-job experience. But that is typical in a field that has not yet adopted professional standards, said Weinstein.

Weinstein serves as vice president of the International Association for Child Safety Inc., which represents the interests of more than 150 baby-proofing companies. Developing professional guidelines is one of the 3-year-old group's goals, he said.

"Things are starting to take off in the business," said Weinstein, a former patent attorney who started a child-proofing business nine years ago. "But we have to get bigger before we can set those standards."

That means a child's safety remains in the hands of parents who have to be smart about hiring qualified help or learn to buy sensible baby-proofing products themselves, child advocates point out.

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