The best way to make your home safe: Start childproofing early -- before your baby's born, since that's when you actually have time to do it, or before such milestones as crawling or walking. Begin with a few safeguards, then add more as your child grows. Here's how -- and when -- to start:
Before you bring your baby home:
Buy a fire extinguisher that's rated for grease fires (the label should say that it's meant for the kitchen). Read the instructions carefully when you get it. If you can, practice once -- outside, so you don't make a mess -- then refill or replace it. And remember that you should use your extinguisher only for a small, contained fire; for one that's larger or spreading, evacuate and call the fire department.
Before your baby crawls:
Get in the habit of putting her in a safe spot when you're cooking. An infant in a bouncy seat or car-seat carrier (on the floor) -- or, once she can hold her head up, in a high chair or a play center -- is much safer than one on the loose in the kitchen. Scalding is just one big danger: You might trip over her as you take a boiling pot off the stove.
Practice safe cooking. Turn pot handles toward the rear of the stove; cook on back burners whenever possible.
Move all cleaning supplies into adult-height cabinets. Never store household chemicals in containers originally used for food or beverages.
Before your baby cruises or walks:
Install safety latches on cabinets and drawers -- especially on those that contain knives or other sharp objects.
Keep step stools and chairs away from counters, so little adventurers can't climb up and fall off. (You also don't want them to be able to reach knives and other dangerous things.) This precaution may sound obvious, but experts say lots of people don't do it.
Keeping mealtime safe:
* Place your baby's high chair away from objects in the kitchen or dining room that he could easily grab. Strap him in, and never leave him unattended.
* If you use tablecloths or place mats, be extra vigilant -- your child can tug on them and inadvertently pull off the heavy dishes or hot liquids resting on top.
* When microwaving food for your child, release the steam and stir the food before serving. (Don't heat formula or stored breast milk in the microwave because it can create dangerous hot spots. Run the bottles under warm water for a few minutes instead.)
* Avoid choking hazards. Until your child turns 4, don't feed him nuts, seeds, popcorn, hard or sticky candy, whole grapes or cherries, chunky peanut butter (use the smooth kind), or chewing gum. Cut up firm, round foods (grapes, cooked carrots, hot dogs, etc.) into small pieces -- about a quarter inch -- before serving.
Dana Sullivan, a mom of three, is coauthor of The Essential C-Section Guide, and writes for Health, Real Simple, and O.