Taming a treacherous staircase
August 11, 2009 3:25 PM   Subscribe

Our new house has a steep steep staircase. What are some ways I can make this feature safer for my family, and especially for our soon-to-be-toddling baby?

So the new house we purchased has what I'd call a very steep hardwood staircase-- steep enough to have caused several wobbly near-misses in the move-in period alone. I feel especially nervous climbing or descending when I'm carrying my four-month-old, since she's getting wriggly enough that I usually need to use both arms to hold her, leaving no way to hang onto the banister. It's less that the individual steps are high, than that they're shallow-- not enough room for the whole shoe to fit on each one, so you have to watch the balls of your feet for placement all the time.

I'm wondering what can be done about this, since we'll have to navigate this stair 10+ times/day for the next few years, eventually with a still heavier and wrigglier baby, and then with a toddler/small child who may not always follow our instructions to take the steps carefully, slowly and backwards. At a minimum, I'll be putting a large and cushy carpet over the tile floor currently at the bottom of the stairs. But other options I've considered so far are:

1. Do nothing, since maybe we'll get used to the stair mechanics after a few weeks of climbing them?

2. Carpet the whole thing, with lots of padding-- would probably make falls likelier due to slipperiness of carpet, but they might be less damaging when they occurred.

3. Skip the carpet, coat the treads in that sandpapery nonslip stuff-- would make falls less likely, but not less dangerous when they occurred.

4. Save up for some sort of big remodel-- perhaps changing to higher-but-wider steps? Or adding a right-angled section and a landing? I don't know how expensive, or how feasible this sort of thing might be.

I'd love to hear any additional suggestions, or advice on executing any of the options above (particularly #4). Thanks!
posted by Bardolph to Home & Garden (19 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
We have a steep, narrow staircase in an old house and a two year old. We had a stair gate at the top for a while, but she soon started crawling up and we took it off. Now she's totally cool and walks up and down. It really was far less of a big deal than we expected. Carrying her is fine too. So I'd choose option 1 and do nothing.

I did slip down about half of it when drunk once though. That hurt. But I was all loose because I was drunk, so it wasn't really that back.
posted by rhymer at 3:35 PM on August 11, 2009

sorry, should read "wasn't really that bad."
posted by rhymer at 3:36 PM on August 11, 2009

Install an additional small-diameter (pipe) rail below the regular one, for little hands to grasp.
You can also install non-skid pads or tape on the stair surfaces.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 3:39 PM on August 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


Kids learn quicker than adults.
posted by i_cola at 3:42 PM on August 11, 2009

Soon your kid will have enough back and head control that you can hold her on your hip and grip the banister with your other hand. 4-6 months is the wriggliest age in which you need both hands to hold them, unless you face her so that she's looking out, with her butt on your hip, and then you're set.

1. Do nothing, since maybe we'll get used to the stair mechanics after a few weeks of climbing them?

Heh, no, and no to the mini handrails and no-slip pads which will be useful for a capable 3 year-old but pointless for a poorly mobile 10 month-old. 99% of toddlers are obsessed with stairs. Your kid will go through a phase where if she's within eyesight of those stairs, she'll ignore you and all her toys in order to climb up--and then down--and then up, yay!--and then down--and then up!!--and back down, hooray. It's a thing, probably embedded in their DNA to freak out parents. Sandpaper won't help a damn bit with a toddler who can't walk but can climb freely, and while carpet will soften any minor falls, it's not a safeguard for major spills.

This seems so obvious that I feel like I missed something, but can you get a baby gate? They're hideous and tremendously annoying for adults, but with the onslaught of Infant Stair Obsession you'll probably be more inclined to deal with the annoyance of hopping over it than watching your firstborn tumble down a flight of steps.
posted by zoomorphic at 3:44 PM on August 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

I would definitely carpet them - if nothing else, get a runner installed. I know that when we ripped up the wall to wall carpet here (including the nasty carpeting on the stairs), it got crazy slippery on the stairs. I was completely paranoid that one of us was going to fall down and crack our heads open. It made a *huge* difference once the runner was installed.

As far as how you carry the baby, is she regularly holding her head up? If she is, you can start carrying her upright with your arms wrapped firmly around her waist. You can even hold one of her little arms in with your hand to make it that much more secure. That was the only way I was able to go up and down the stairs holding my kiddos.

And honestly, more often than not, I took the stairs one at a time if I felt uncertain while carrying a kid. Dorky and slow? Absolutely. But I still remain without a concussion and my kids are all in one piece.

Also, slippers or shoes with decent treads on them. NO socks.

In case you're interested (and are still thinking about investing in having new stairs done), the minimum tread depth for residential stairs required by the 1997 Standard Building Code (SBC) and the 1997 Uniform Building Code (UBC) is 9 inches and by the International Residential Code, 10 inches. The maximum rise restriction for residential stairs required by the 1997 SBC and the 1997 UBC is 8 inches, and by the International Residential Code, 7 1/4 inches.

It might be a lot harder than you realise to rebuild your stairs, especially if they're encased on either side. Still, I would get an estimate from a stair builder -- just out of curiosity.

posted by dancinglamb at 3:51 PM on August 11, 2009

I agree with dancinglamb, get an estimate on fixing your stairs. Odds are, it will be prohibitive in terms of expense because I'm guessing that you'll have to make some significant changes to the house in order to accommodate stairs with the code minimum rise and run. And, while you have the stair builder there talking to you, ask him or her what products they might recommend to reduce slippage. I agree that a runner is a good idea, a material like felt might work to give you extra grip and slightly soften the steps. A thick carpet would probably not work, making the steps more bulky and your footing less sure.
posted by amanda at 4:19 PM on August 11, 2009

Rubber stair treads! Inexpensive and easy to install, they won't make your stairs "smaller" the way carpet would.
posted by Carol Anne at 4:24 PM on August 11, 2009

Teach the kiddo right away how to do stairs. Practice. Don't want the kid to show up the first day of Kindergarten and have to take the wheelchair ramp to the doors. (I exaggerate..and no, i don't have kids. but i was one. and we lived in an apartment. my parents used that technique, and i've never fallen down stairs--i'm 28 now--and i'm not abnormally graceful or anything.)
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 4:26 PM on August 11, 2009

The carpet at my parents' house actually makes the stairs easier to slip off of. It's a typical cut pile carpet, and my socked foot has slipped off the end of the stair treads many times. Another part of the house has a berber carpet which definitely increases the traction on the stairs.
posted by defreckled at 5:12 PM on August 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

there are some great no-skid stickers that skateboarders put on their skateboards. i've put some of them on my exterior wooden stairs after one rainy day i nearly skidded off one tread.
posted by rmd1023 at 5:19 PM on August 11, 2009

And something NOT to do: don't pile stuff or hang pointy things like coat racks directly at the bottom of the stairs. If you have a fancy newel post, check that landing on it won't impale anyone. I vote for carpeting as kids running in socks is the quickest way down the stairs, sometimes nose first. And no loose runners at the top of the stairs, either. I was a champ at falling down my mum's waxed stairs when I was a kid.

BTW, the pile on stair runners should run opposite to the stair going downto give grip or be a bit rough or flat. And, if you put caps on the edges, make them rubber, not metal as the metal ones I've had always caught my foot.
posted by x46 at 6:10 PM on August 11, 2009

Your kid won't know the stairs are steep. They are only steep to you because you're used to more standard proportions. If you grew up in a house with steep steps, you probably wouldn't have any problems with these.
posted by jabberjaw at 6:31 PM on August 11, 2009

We installed this product in our house and HIGHLY recommend it. It's a child-height handrail that attaches to your main one.

It screws to the bottom of your banister and when uninstalled, won't leave any visible traces.


We got ours at Homedepot.com but I don't see it there anymore.
posted by mazienh at 6:43 PM on August 11, 2009

I've got to come back here and emphasize that while you can certainly teach a little kid (3+) to be careful with stairs by holding on to a kiddie-sized hand rail, your logic will go right over a young toddler's head. Have you hung out with toddlers recently? They get into everything. They are hilarious and goofy and completely incapable of appreciating reason or lessons or common sense. They have very little understanding of pain and danger until it actually happens to them. I can tell my 1 year-old charge that pulling herself up on the oven latch above her head is super-dangerous until I go blue in the face, but she will neither listen to me nor wait more than 10 seconds after I turn around to try to pull herself up on it. That's why we installed a baby-proof oven latch: to spare her little unreasonable cranium some serious pain.

Same goes for all the advice on preventing slippage via sandpaper and carpets: this will work when she's older and able to feasibly walk up and down the stairs by herself. But you can't pronounce the stairs as baby-safe just because you've got some no-slip doohickey or hand rail in place (notice that the child in mazeinh's link looks to be about four). Seriously, get a baby-gate or figure out a way to forcibly block her from wandering around there unless you're watching her.
posted by zoomorphic at 6:49 PM on August 11, 2009

I grew up (and still own) a house that is about 220 years old. It has the steepest stairs I have ever seen (saw some similar at Sturbridge village in Mass). Three kids and never a stair injury. Not carpeted and very rickety. They seemed normal to me and when people would remark how crazy they were I never realized they were out of the ordinary.

And my kid has tried to walk off a pier to find Nemo but is very used to stairs and is very careful.
posted by beccaj at 7:00 PM on August 11, 2009

Don't know whether this can be done on bare wood stairs, but I'm thinking of the plastic nosing that gets put on carpeted stairs in public buildings - they would offer a bit of grip on the feet and a smidgen of extra depth to each stair.
posted by lakeroon at 8:00 PM on August 11, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks so much to everyone who's weighed in so far! I feel a bit more confident that the stairs won't prove a deathtrap, and I will investigate the nosing/rubber tread/Berber runner options. (zoomorphic: thanks so much for the gate suggestion, but just to clarify, I'm worried mostly about (a)my klutzy self carrying the kid, and (b) the kid once she's old enough to scamper about, baby-gate-free-- you've got to let them loose on the stairs at some point, right?)
posted by Bardolph at 9:00 PM on August 11, 2009

I know exactly what you mean. Get or make a baby sling. Just leave it on all day and pop the baby in and out. That way, the baby's on your hip and held still-ish, and you can use your hands and see your feet. Pretty soon the baby will be able to sit up better and sit on your hip better and be easier to hold - but will be heavier, so you'll still want the sling. Lifesaver. I've gotten out of the habit, but need to make a new one to lug my heavy and wiggly 1 year old around.
posted by artychoke at 11:45 PM on August 11, 2009

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