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Buyer's Guide to Safety Barriers, Guards & Bumpers

For use in front of fires, stairs, doorways, to cordon off areas or to prevent falls from bed - there are a range of home safety options.

Posted: 5 December 2009
by Laura Lee Davies

Over one million children in the UK have an accident of some kind each year. The birth to four-year-old group is the most high-risk and, according to RoSPA (the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents), falls account for the majority of injuries. Most deaths are fire related and the most severe injuries to children are brought about by heat-related incidents or falls from some height.

Safety barriers can help prevent children from falling down stairs, wandering into rooms unsupervised or from getting too close to heat sources like fireplaces. However, safety barriers in themselves can be dangerous if not fitted properly.

(When you are booking a holiday, think ahead and check out if the property you want to rent has stairs and barriers. If you are unsure, look at the section on travel barriers, below.)

Safety barriers
Parents often mistakenly called these stair gates, but safety barriers can be used across the door of a room where you wish to contain your child (possibly their bedroom or playroom) or one you want him to stay away from (the kitchen, for example). Barriers are designed to work for containing children up to two years. Beyond this age they can pose a danger if the child is strong enough to thoroughly shake the barrier and weaken it, or is tall enough to climb over it but is likely to fall down the other side.

It recommended that you use a safety gate at the top and bottom of your stairs. This might sound excessive and a hassle for you when you have to open and close them all the time, but a baby who starts to crawl can quickly get up a few stairs, and a toddler wandering to find your bedroom in the night can easily fall down the stairs. If you only have one at the top of the stairs, bear in mind that a small child might pull back on it to see if it is open and fall backwards as a result.

You should make sure the stairgate or barrier you choose conforms to safety standard BS 4125.

A simple barrier
This is a straightforward barrier which blocks a child's access to somewhere. It can usually be easily removed but does not have a gate mechanism to open and close. These have been linked to accidents when parents misuse them because they find it quicker to step over them rather than refit them each time, but can be a cheaper alternative if the space you want blocking off is not in constant use.

Walk-through gate
A gate works more straight-forwardly based on hinges. It will usually have a frame which grips the surface either side of the space.
To keep them light and simple, many will open one way but some might have a two-way opening system.

Easy to fit safely?
It is important to look at the place where you intend to fit the barrier. If it is on stairs, do you have an even fitting? Many stairs have shaped wooden features which may not provide you with a solid, flat surface against which to support the barrier. If you create a flat surface, make sure it is secure, not just a wedged piece of card or wood.

Widths and sizes
Some barriers are available with extension kits in case the two sides you are seeking to support the barrier from are a wider than average distance apart. Most barriers will have a certain flexibility (within a standard range) in width which can be adjusted during fitting. It is possible to find gates that suit more narrow doorways, the Clippasafe Xtra Narrow for example.

Handles and releases
In the shop, see if the safety barriers are on display. Are they easy to open? Most will be tricky for a child (as they should be!), but are they too difficult

for you? Try opening them with one hand? Parents are often carrying washing or a toy, for example, so it has to be a barrier you can use easily otherwise the temptation will be to climb over it or to leave it permanently open.

Travel barriers
If you are visiting another home (possibly a grandparent or a holiday cottage) where you do not know if there will be any stairgates or barriers, it can be useful to buy one of the lighter mesh barriers. These may not be heavy-duty gates, but they will act as a good strong barrier and you won't need you to take a drill with you, as they fit to doorways with pressure mounts rather than fixtures. BabyDan, for example, have a 'Gate to Go' model.

Other barrier features
Some models have a 'self closing' mechanism so the gated element pulls back after you've gone through it. Some do not have a bottom bar on the frame - this helps reduce the chance of tripping on the bar. It is also possible to get a gate with side panels so that you can fit it to two points if you do not have a straightforward space.

Fire Guards
It is vital to get a fire guard if you have any kind of working fireplace in your home. (These can be removed during summer months when not in use, if the fireplace does not present other dangers during this time.)

There are many on the market and they often come in a range of colours which suits their use in living rooms. Many are pretty flexible in size - and can be adjusted - and there are some larger ones on the market for wider fireplaces or for use to stand around something you wish to protect your children from (like the Christmas tree, for example).

You should make sure the guard can be securely fitted at both sides of the fireplace, to the wall. It should NEVER be left leaning or standing around a fireplace and ALWAYS be secured so that a child cannot pull it over.

It's a good idea to find a guard which has as a certain amount of cover across the top as well as sides. This way things cannot easily fall over it into the fire.

Bed bumpers
Some children's beds come with a side piece so that your child cannot roll out of bed when they are asleep. However, most beds won't have this as a feature and, unless your child is sleeping close to the floor, you might want to have a bed bumper whilst they make the transition from a cot to confident bed sleeping (usually somewhere between their second and third birthdays).

Most bed bumpers can be easily fitted and removed so as your child grows, you might find you use the bumper less and less. Because it is easy to put up, it's handy to fold down and take with you when you are away at another person's home for the night.

Bed bumpers aren't very high or terribly long - just enough to prevent rolling off the bed. Some are wooden and many have a metal frame and a webbed side so that they are 'breathable' at night. None of these pose a danger to a sleeping child if their face is pressed against them in their sleep and by the time your child is two, they are most likely going to reposition themselves during sleep, if they are uncomfortable. However, do look at the the corners along the top of the bumper. Some have squarer corners which can hurt a bit if your child is getting into bed and catches himself on them.

Look at how they are secured. Most have flip-down legs which lock into position (and are not easily loosened by a child) and then slide under the mattress. The weight of the mattress then keeps the bumper in position. Some have a curved edge on the legs so that they grip the far side of the mattress when they are is use. However, whilst they may fit the average single mattress, they are not useful for larger sized mattresses as they will cause it to raise in the middle and the legs will not lay fat on the base of the bed.

Look at the hinged part of the bumper. Some have quite a large hinge which is fine for beds with flat sides but any kind of ridge on the frame of the bed (even just a centimetre) will mean that the larger hinge pushes the mattress in too far and you are left with a ridge where a child can easily bump his shin getting in and out. In the store, ask if any of the bumpers are displayed fitted to beds so you can see what is most likely to suit your needs.

Read the instructions

From personal experience of several different barriers by different companies, I would say it can be quite tricky to make something that fits two flat pieces of wood in the shop, fit right on your stairs or doors. Make sure you go by the manufacturer's instructions as you will have no recourse afterwards if one proves faulty but it can be claimed that it wasn't properly fitted.

Where possible, check in the shop what instructions comes with the barrier or bumper so you feel happy you have enough information to help you fit it correctly. If not, choose another model.

If you are borrowing a barrier from someone or are thinking of buying one second-hand, be very careful. If it does not come with the original instructions and a checklist of every part that should be included, it can be dangerous to use. Just because it looks OK, if there is one small nut missing, it can be unsafe to use. Additionally, many barriers have to endure wear and tear from toddlers swinging off them or trying to open them by shaking. Does your used barrier look like it's seen too many hard times?

Both RoSPA and the consumer body Which? have done tests on various safety gates and barriers and found alarming inconsistencies in clarity of instructions, safety from clothes snagging on barrier parts and so on. However, some tests have been questioned for their own consistency. For the latest advice on standards and safety procedure, it is a good idea to check out the RoSPA website.

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