In his 2009 critique of the TSA, technologist Bruce Schneier argues that most anti-terrorism resources are wasted in response to movie-plot threats.

Whether the threat is real (terrorists flying planes into buildings) or imagined (“terrorists contaminating the milk supply”), Schneier argues that movie-plot stories have an outsized effect on our decision-making. Our collective response to those movie-plot threats, Schneier argues, is “security theater,” that is, “measures that make people feel more secure without doing anything to actually improve their security.”

Babyproofing – the various steps taken to protect babies and young children from hazards in their homes – is more similar to the TSA’s responses to terrorism than we might like to think. Many baby safety devices are movie-plot driven responses to isolated or extremely rare events that parents attempt to ward off by investing in expensive and often underperforming to ineffective gear. Babyproofing may offer more safety theater than actual safety.

Many dangers aren’t that dangerous

Some babyproofing measures, like fencing pools and securing dressers, can lessen life-threatening dangers. But many of the other dangers we attempt to avert through babyproofing aren’t as dangerous as we imagine them to be.

Outlet covers are a useful example. Cheap tiny plastic plugs and more expensive sliding plates are intended to guard against electrocution. These devices fall far short of their promise, not because they fail to prevent electrocutions but because electrocutions are so rare to begin with. A child who puts a finger or fork inside an electrical outlet is not going to get “electrocuted.” That’s because the word “electrocuted” specifically refers to a person killed by electricity.

And although people do die from electrocution each year, those people are largely adult men who are killed by a hazard at their occupation, such as high-voltage wires. The likely outcome of tampering with a home outlet is electric shock, which still happens surprisingly little. One 2013 estimate was 68 children under the age of one, all of whom were released from the emergency room, which suggests that their injuries were relatively minor.

Babyproofing doesn’t work

Of all types of babyproofing gear, the baby gate is probably considered the most important. A study released in Pediatrics in 2012 used the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS) – a database of injuries from 100 representative emergency rooms across the country – to estimate the overall rates of pediatric injuries from falls. The researchers found that in the U.S., a child is injured by a fall every six minutes.

Although newsworthy, that six-minute claim is probably misleading, at least about the need for baby gates.

The study looked at a wider age group than would normally be considered for babyproofing: children ages zero to five. Using NEISS data, researchers estimated over 900,000 stair-related injuries, but that number included the daredevil kindergartener antics of jumping off or riding a tricycle down the stairs. Approximately 439,000 children between zero and two were estimated to have been injured between 1999 and 2008.

That figure, however, is not an accurate reflection of the number of injuries that could be prevented with baby gates. 25,000 of the falls occurred from baby walkers, which are no longer sold in the US out of safety concerns. Another 9,500 were in strollers, which suggests that some falls occurred in public places that could not be expected to have baby gates. 45,000 of the falls occurred when children were being carried, meaning that a baby gate, even if installed properly, could not have prevented a fall.

One additional comment from the researchers suggests that babyproofing may provide some false confidence and even a potential safety hazard. The researchers also examined the narrative reports of injuries in the NEISS fall data, and found that having a gate doesn’t necessarily prevent an accident: “A review of the case narratives in this study showed that the gates were often removed by another household member or the young child was able to knock or climb over the gate.”

The gates themselves can also lead to other unintended injuries. Another group of researchers studying NEISS data specifically on baby gates estimated that between 1990 and 2010 children sustained an average of just under 1,800 injuries a year from baby gates. Kids aged two and under were most likely to be injured by falling, while kids between ages two and six were most likely to crash into the gate.

Furthermore, that injury rate is climbing, from 3.9 children per 100,000 children in 1990 to 12.5 children per 100,000 in 2010. It’s unlikely that gates are getting less safe; rather, it’s likely that more parents are buying gates, and with more of any baby item, there are going to be more injuries.

We develop a gear-based approach to problem solving

If babyproofing is safety theater, it’s a large-scale production with expensive props.

Bath thermometers – as well as color-changing tub inserts, bath mats, and rubber duckies in coordinating patterns – are designed to tell parents when the water temperature isn’t safe for their babies. Many of these items are made redundant by your own hand, which can easily test the safety of water temperature. And if you don’t trust yourself to accurately gauge the temperature, you can always lower your hot water heater to 120 degrees.

More gear makes parents feel confident that they have done something, that they have made their babies safer. But that reassurance comes at a cost. Imagining that you buy all of the standard recommended babyproofing items, and that you had to buy impermanent ones (say because you’re a renter or because you don’t want the locks affixed to adulthood), here’s a rough cost estimate of the least expensive babyproofing items available, according to their current prices on Amazon:

  • Removable drawer locks, two packs for kitchen and one for each bathroom: $30
  • Removable oven door lock: $5
  • Universal stove knob covers, pack of five: $8
  • Entry-level wall-mounted baby gates for top and bottom of stairs: $60
  • Insertable outlet covers: $3
  • Pack of screw-in sliding outlet covers for objects you want to plug and unplug frequently: $12
  • Toilet seat cover: $8
  • Tub faucet cover: $8
  • Table cover bumpers: $9

You might look at this list and think that $143 is a small price to pay for a safety, but is that what you’re really purchasing with these babyproofing items? You’re not buying a guarantee of safety. Your child could fall from lots of things other than the stairs, and even the stairs if you forget to close the gate. Instead, you’re buying a talisman that makes you feel safer.

Encouraging parents to buy more gear to make their babies safer also obscures much more effective and coordinated approaches that could increase safety for all babies. The National Electric Code requires tamper-resistant spring-loaded electrical receptacles in new and renovated homes, which decrease risk of accidental injury from electric shock without requiring outlet covers. The authors of the Pediatrics fall study advocate for new building codes for home staircases, which could reduce falls more successfully than inconsistently-used gates.

Children will always devise a more creative solution

The basic premise of babyproofing is that you crawl around to get a “child’s eye view” and then install barriers to prevent your child from killing or maiming himself. One problem with this approach is that the barriers are ineffective or inconsistently used. Another far bigger problem is that although we’re at a child’s level, we are not actually seeing the world through those eyes, because that child doesn’t see “danger,” but rather “exciting new challenge.”

In his profile of Schneier and his analysis of security theater, Charles C. Mann recalled a conversation briefly after 9/11. Schneier bet Mann that the United States would not see another large terrorist attack in the next decade, at least not using airplanes. That’s because, Schneier argued, Americans were now prepared for the specific occasion and would attack airplane hijackers. The same goes for shoe and snow globe bombs, methods that aren’t likely to be used because they’re now highly publicized. Terrorists are constantly innovating.

Babies will also invent a solution around any new obstacle. There’s scant data on babyproofing effectiveness, but some of the existing data suggests that kids are creative problem-solvers when it comes to dismantling safety devices. Install a baby gate? The baby will learn to climb over it. One small study of outlet covers found that kids ages two through four could remove even the most difficult covers in an average of 39 seconds.

Babyproofing robs parents and children of valuable lessons

We buy table corner protectors to avoid cuts, stove knob covers to prevent burns, door guards to avert pinched fingers. We buy drawer locks to shield our kids from sharp things. But tables aren’t the only household objects that have corners. There are walls, doors, and the ubiquitous IKEA MALA easel, to name just a few household fixtures. Stoves aren’t the only things that can burn kids. Doors aren’t the only things that can pinch them, and knives aren’t the only things that can cut them. When we babyproof selectively, we’re robbing kids of the category learning that hot things burn or sharp things cut.

When parents stage elaborate safety theater, we rob ourselves of valuable lessons as well. When we’re constantly preparing for what might happen rather than what is happening, we increase our parental anxiety. When we’re always anticipating and neutralizing potential hazards around our children, we miss the chance to trust our children to explore and learn from the world around them. When avoiding homes without stove knob covers and drawer locks, we further isolate ourselves during a period when many parents already feel cut off from the world.

Are you a believer in babyproofing? Tell us about it in the comments below.