Smart Shopping: Baby Gates

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A gate can keep a baby inside a safe area or outside a dangerous one. But make sure you install it correctly, and be aware of its limitations.


Gates that fit in doorways or span other openings are often used to keep curious, exploring babies and toddlers -- generally ages 6 to 24 months -- out of harm's way. They can keep baby out from under foot, for example, or block hazards such as a stairway or a hot stove. But gates can be pushed down or dislodged, and should be considered only a supplemental safety measure. They are no substitute for supervising your child.
WHAT'S AVAILABLE
The major brands of baby gates are Evenflo, First Years, Fisher-Price, and Safety 1st. There are two basic types: pressure-mounted and hardware-mounted. Some gates are made of wood slats, similar to old-fashioned, accordion-style models but with top and bottom rails. Others are constructed of a frame and filler bars made of coated tubular steel. Wire- or plastic-mesh gates have either a wood or metal frame. Some gates are all plastic.
Pressure-mounted gates. These models usually have two sliding panels that you adjust to make the gate fit the opening. A pressure bar or other locking mechanism wedges the gate in place against the wall or door frame. Most models span openings up to 42 inches wide, but others extend 48 or even 60 inches. You can also purchase optional extensions for some models.
Pressure-mounted gates are useful in areas where falling is not a major concern, such as in an opening separating two areas or at the bottom of a stairway (to discourage a child from venturing upstairs).
Although easy to install, pressure-mounted gates are also fairly easy to dislodge. Even the most stable pressure-mounted gate will work loose over time. Pressure-mounted gates carry a warning that they should not be used at the top of a stairway. Some manufacturers want to remove that warning from all gates except those that do not meet a specified dislodgment force. Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports, opposes that change. We believe that no pressure-mounted gates should be used at the top of stairs or on upper floors in a home. Price range: $20 to $90.
Hardware-mounted gates. If properly secured to the doorjamb or wall with the supplied hardware, these gates are a safer choice for your baby. While you must drill holes in the wood to install them, you can fill in the holes when you no longer need the gate. Many models are easy to remove from the mounting hardware when you want the doorway temporarily open. And they can be installed so they swing open only one way -- such as away from the stairs -- for maximum safety. Price range: $25 to $110.
Specialty gates. Some gates are designed to adjust to uneven baseboards, walls, or door frames. Others have special hardware for attaching the gate to wrought-iron railings, wooden newel posts, and other structures.
IMPORTANT FEATURES

Gates should be solidly constructed, have reliable hardware, and be free of entrapment hazards.

Construction. The gate should be made of sturdy, smooth materials with rounded rather than sharply squared edges. Check to see that all surfaces are splinter-free. Vertical slats or bars should be no more than 2 3/8 inches apart. Gates should not have openings or protrusions on the top edge that could snag clothing or catch on necklaces or other jewelry.

Height.To reduce the likelihood of an adventurous child climbing over, the gate must be at least three-quarters of the child's height. Most gates stand at least 22 inches from the floor. When a child is taller than 30 inches or older than 2 years, gates are typically no longer appropriate.

Latches. There are several types of latches. Many require two actions to release, so only an adult can open the latch. Other gates have a squeezing mechanism that opens by compressing parts of the gate. Some people find this kind of latch uncomfortable to use, however, so test it in the store. Other options include a pressure-release handle or one that lifts up. Some models use a foot pedal to open the gate. A battery-operated model with a remote, wall-mounted switch was introduced 2 years ago, but it may no longer be available.

HOW TO CHOOSE

Key differences. Hardware-mounted gates are safer than pressure-mounted ones, but no gate can be guaranteed to keep a child in or out. Metal gates are usually more rigid than wood. However, some metal models have a stability bar that crosses the floor beneath the gate and could pose a tripping hazard.

Recommendations. For blocking stairways, choose a hardware-mounted gate that can be installed to only swing away from the steps. Pressure-mounted gates are suitable for separating rooms on the same level.

Gates should have a smooth, flat top and hardware with no sharp edges or points. If you choose a model with mesh panels, look for a fine weave. Wide-holed mesh can provide a foothold for climbing or can entrap hands, arms, or legs. Even fingers, teeth, or small buttons can get caught if the mesh openings are too large. Gates with vertical bars are best for preventing babies from climbing over the top.
Measure the width of the doorway or opening you want to gate, and take the measurements with you when you shop. After you make your choice, follow mounting instructions carefully. Frequently check hardware that attaches to the gate and wall. Loose hardware not only makes a gate less effective but also can pose a choking hazard. Keep large toys, such as stuffed animals or riding toys, away from the gate so they can't be used as step stools.
  • Gates to avoid. Accordion-style wood gates that open to form diamond-shaped spaces with wide V's at the top pose an entrapment hazard. Such gates have not been manufactured for years, but you may still see one at a garage sale. If you have this type of gate, replace it with a new model.
  • Gate alternatives. You might consider installing an actual door, screen door, or half-door with a latch out of your child's reach and a strong self-closing mechanism. As a safeguard for small fingers, look for a pneumatic or hydraulic closer that comes with a pressure adjustment to prevent slamming.
  • Certification. A certification sticker on the gate frame or packaging indicates that the gate meets the minimum requirements of the American Society for Testing and Materials' voluntary standard for gates. The certification program is administered by the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association (JPMA). The standard addresses issues including the size of openings, gate height, bottom spacing, strength of top rails and framing components, and vertical and horizontal dislodgement performance (for pressure-mounted gates). Labeling must advise consumers to use the gate safely.
    Some gates have been recalled in recent years. Problems have included plastic parts that break, posing choking hazards.
    2009-03-26 15:05:57
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