Adorable and clumsy though they are, toddlers can be shockingly quick and curious when they want to be - so you'll need to block off access to stairs and any other areas of the house that contain hazards, such as the kitchen, bathroom, garage or fireplace. This is where safety gates and barriers can come in handy, keeping dangerous areas out of reach and keeping your child out of harm's way.
Barrier or gate?
Barriers are a basic, fixed device that keeps bub where they need to be, and tend to be a cheaper option. However, remember that you'll need to step over or remove it to get access to the closed-off area, which can be both tricky when child wrangling and a safety concern for the adults in the house! Gates swing open and closed and are more convenient when you need frequent access to the closed-off area, but may cost more.
What to look for
There are two international standards for safety gates: the European EN 1930 and the American ASTM F1004. As there isn't currently an Australian standard, certification to these standards is worth looking for.
Pressure mounts vs hardware mounts
Gates and barriers are often fixed to the doorway by pressure mounts, which screw out from the gate frame and hold the gate in position by pressure alone. Make sure these tighten firmly enough to hold the gate securely in place. Pressure mounts aren't as secure as permanent hardware mounts such as wall cups, which are bolted or screwed directly into the wall or doorframe. These are a better choice for riskier areas, such as the tops of stairways.
Gate latches should be easily operated by an adult, but impossible for a toddler. Gates should require two separate actions to open, such as unlocking and lifting. The gate should close easily and it should be clear whether the latch has engaged properly, with an audible or visible indicator. Ideally, you should be able to operate the gate with one hand, so you can get through easily while carrying your child or that giant basket of washing, for example. Some gates have a convenient foot pedal.
Most gates or barriers will fit a range of door widths, but some are more adjustable than others. Their mountings usually extend a few centimetres, which allows for fine adjustment. A larger adjustment will need an extension kit, which are only available for some models. Some barriers and gates have sliding or extending sections that can be adjusted to a large range of doorways.
Gaps between bars should be between 50mm-95mm to ensure bub's head can't fit through or get stuck. Any accessible smaller gaps should be between 12mm-30mm (to avoid hands or feet getting caught) or less than 5mm (to avoid trapping little fingers). Check the bars (or mesh) are rigid, so that a child can't force gaps wider than the recommended dimensions.
There should be no horizontal bars – they could be used for climbing.
Gates and barriers can be made of metal, wood, plastic or mesh. Choosing one type over another is mostly a matter of personal preference.
An extra-tall gate is also useful for keeping out pets (which can often jump a standard-height gate), and a cat-flap can be handy to allow your feline friend to come and go while still keeping your child on the safe side of the gate.
And pet owners rejoice: once bub grows out of it, you can always use the gate or barrier for your resident canine.
Beware the criss-cross accordion gates!
Baby gates and barriers are meant to stop toddlers falling down stairs but this older-type gate, which opens criss-cross like an accordion, can trap a child's head or clothes, and is too easy to climb. Overseas they've caused major injuries and deaths.