Babyproofing this old house
May 17, 2020 4:09 PM   Subscribe

Our wonderful old house is a danger zone for our upcoming baby. How do we fix it?

DonutPrince and I are expecting our own munchkin in the fall but we're stumped on how to baby proof some facets of our 1920s era row house and the internet is full of confusing advice or advice that doesn't apply. Our major problem areas are:

-plaster walls
-seemingly un-gate-able stairway
-attractive (but dangerous?) open fireplace

1. Plaster walls
It is terribly impossible to find studs in our walls even with a magnetic stud finder and heavy items not connected to studs utterly destroy the wall. How can we anchor furniture and tv safely?

2. seemingly un-gate-able stairway
The railings and spindles on our stairs are wrought iron (visualize something like this) and they are across from, you guessed it, fragile crumble-prone plaster walls. How can we gate something like this at the top and bottom of the stairs when one side would have to connect to a post and one side would have to somehow be sturdy against a fragile wall?

3. attractive (but dangerous?) open fireplace
There a stone fireplace in our living room that is lovely and of course, totally not child safe. We have a fireplace screen, but that could be easily knocked over as it's my impression that standing fireplace screens are not designed with children in mind. We don't use our fireplace (needs repair that is not priority). What should we put in front of it or in it to make it child safe?

Assume that I am comfortable with general home repair and power tools (although not at professional handy-person level).
posted by donut_princess to Home & Garden (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I would hire one of those companies that baby proofs your house and let them figure it out, if you have the means. They have a million specialized products. At the very least go to a baby proofing store (once going to stores is a thing again) and bring pictures of your issues and ask what products they recommend.

You have lots of time...figure 6 months old is the very earliest you would have to worry about any of this stuff. Before that just make sure there's nothing in the crib and the baby is on his or her back and you'll be fine.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 4:13 PM on May 17, 2020 [2 favorites]

I'm in a similar situation, with a house that's 100+ years old and a little guy.

The good news is you don't really need to worry for months yet.

What worked for us won't work for you, but the general principle that has saved the day over and over is making things yourself or else making a frame to mount an existing thing

The plaster (ours has a layer of drywall to add to the mystery) sucks, so we have boards mounted with many screws at locations like gates and behind heavy tippables. Some drywall anchors, some not, some magically connecting to studs.

We used mostly cedar fence boards because they are beautiful and cheap and smell nice and easy to work with hand tools.

Things then get mounted to those boards. It helps my mind to periodically give things a wiggle to make sure they're secure. Nothing has come loose yet!

A similar idea might work for you fireplace (make a frame to wedge inside and attach things to that) if you don't actually use it.
posted by Acari at 4:21 PM on May 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

Google "baby fence" and you will find long jointed fence-y things that will be illustrated with images of them surrounding an open hearth. This is the kind of thing my friends with open fireplaces had during their kids' early years.

You might also find that you're not gating right at the top or bottom of the stairs but in a nearby location—at our old house we had an entry way, the stairs were hard to gate so we gated the doorway between the living room and entry way, for instance.
posted by Orlop at 4:22 PM on May 17, 2020 [5 favorites]

The bottom of our stairs in our 1914 house was impossible to gate, so we ended up putting gates on the three doors that lead to the entryway.
posted by rockindata at 4:49 PM on May 17, 2020 [2 favorites]

The piece of hardware used on plaster and lathe walls instead of screwing into a stud is called a toggle bolt. You can put up wood shelves holding 100+ lbs of weight using only toggle bolts on plaster and lathe walls (I've done it). You want one made of metal. They are relatively easy to install, definitely DIY-able after a Youtube video or three.

You could also use them to affix your baby gate to the wall, get one that extends out like an accordion and attaches to the wrought iron.

The con: they leave bigger holes than screws that have to be patched later. More on how to install.
posted by amaire at 4:51 PM on May 17, 2020 [3 favorites]

We spent extra money for an electrician to put in special electric socket covers. We bought and installed multiple baby gates in our old house, did the locking cabinets, etc. I wish we had waited until she was toddling, then gone with hand-me-down gates and playpen walls and just stuck those cheap plastic things in the low-level sockets. Our daughter figured out the stairs (safely) pretty quick since our house has so many of them, and otherwise had 0 interest in the fireplace, cabinets or sockets. The protective stuff wasn't up for very long, in the grand scheme of things. YMMV.
posted by nkknkk at 4:57 PM on May 17, 2020 [2 favorites]

I also have a 100 year old house with plaster walls. For finding studs, I just drill a series of tiny holes (1/6th" bit or suchlike) about an inch apart. You can feel when the drill doesn't go in to the wall as easily, presto, you've found a stud. A quick skim of spackle, a quick sand, lick of paint and no one will ever know about the numerous holes you've drilled. I'd screw a wide board to the wall where you'll be mounting the gate. You can paint it wall color, it will help distribute the force (so there's not intense pressure in one narrow area of the plaster). You can screw the gate to the board, or put some L shaped brackets on either side of the the gate that are screwed to the board. On the wrought iron side, you can get some perforated metal strapping, loop it around the wrought iron and screw it to the gate.
posted by Larry David Syndrome at 5:08 PM on May 17, 2020

Magnetic stud-finders rely on detecting nails that fasten the lath* to the studs. If the magnet isn't strong, the thickness of the plaster can defeat it. An electronic stud finder might work better; they're typically adjustable for the density that triggers them, and they don't rely on magnetism. I haven't dealt with lath & plaster since before I got an electronic stud finder, so I don't know for sure that they all would work. Ask your handy friends if they have one you could borrow; they aren't expensive, so lots of people have them.

Some baby gates use an expanding linkage to lock them in a doorframe. If your iron railing is stable, and won't move when pressed against, one of those could work. Give whatever you use some serious yanking around after putting it in before you trust it.

* Lath is wood strips that anchor plaster in walls. A lathe is something else entirely.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:11 PM on May 17, 2020

I would wait and see what kind of kid you have - I didn't bolt down any furniture or the tv, and other than putting child locks on the lowest cabinet and the cheap plastic sockets on the electrical sockets, I didn't do much baby-proofing (no stairs in house, so I can't speak to that). There was a decorative wood screen over the fireplace, but that was more to keep the cats out than the baby.
posted by mogget at 6:15 PM on May 17, 2020 [4 favorites]

Instead of gating the stairs consider gating the hallway about a yard away from the stairs. Means you’re not futzing with a gate while right at the top of a staircase, too.

We put an ikea shelf horizontally across our fireplace, bolted into the bricks in one spot for security, and with a little extra piece of painted plywood attached to fill in the part of fireplace that’s taller than the shelf. It actually looks great.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 7:17 PM on May 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

When the little started to crawl, we made a chalkboard the size of our fireplace and bolted it to a frame inside the fireplace. The chalkboard paint I used is also magnetic, which is fun for learning how to read five years from now!
posted by Arctostaphylos at 7:56 PM on May 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

Regarding outlets, I recently discovered this cheap outlet cover which is perfectly suited to childproofing outlets which you have something plugged into (and which you would like the thing to stay plugged into.)
posted by value of information at 10:31 PM on May 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

Some good ideas in here but I just wanted to also chime in that you don't have to stress about this right now, if you are. It will totally depend on what kind of person your baby turns out to be and they will not be just lying there one day and then sticking their fingers in a socket the next day. With our toddler sockets are hugely ignored so haven't had to covers. We also haven't put any locks on cabinets. We've mainly just re-organised so that toddler height cabinets have toddler-friendly items. For example, in the kitchen we have low drawers and I filled up one with tupperware. She's happy enough playing with this drawer she ignores all the other ones. Now, this could be a blessing of my non-curious child, but it's been a pleasant surprise not to have to proof my home to the teeth.

For the fireplace, someone I know had a similar situation and they just blocked it with a storage solution, which stored toys away. They weren't using the fireplace anyway and this freed up some wallspace for Kid Things.
posted by like_neon at 7:25 AM on May 18, 2020 [1 favorite]

We had to baby proof a house that didn't really lend itself to being baby friendly, and my #1 piece of advice to you is: Start gathering hand-me-down babyproofing supplies now. Request them from everyone you know and from people you don't, from facebook mom groups etc., everyone whose kid grows out of them ends up donating them or passing them down and you want to be the recipient. Start collecting supplies now before you need it. Then, when your kid is on the cusp of crawling, hopefully we will be able to have people over to our houses again... you want to invite over every experienced mom and dad you know, lay out your entire stash, and have them make recommendations. Once you have that step completed and a game plan, you can commence installing all your babyproofing, and you'll also know what you need that you didn't think of. Hopefully you're registering for some hardware store gift cards and will have set those aside for whatever is left!
posted by juniperesque at 10:18 AM on May 18, 2020 [1 favorite]

I didn't respond at the time, but this comment:
I would wait and see what kind of kid you have - I didn't bolt down any furniture or the tv, and other than putting child locks on the lowest cabinet and the cheap plastic sockets on the electrical sockets, I didn't do much baby-proofing (no stairs in house, so I can't speak to that). There was a decorative wood screen over the fireplace, but that was more to keep the cats out than the baby.
This has been sitting uneasy with me. The tragic experience of a local family would beg you to please bolt down your furniture- they didn't know they had a climber, either. I don't want to be a downer, but this kind of freak accident can be deadly.
posted by freethefeet at 10:33 PM on June 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

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