When should I buy a baby gate?
Once your baby starts crawling, then walking, you will realize just how dangerous your house is! Stairways, fireplaces, exterior doors, glass furniture, fragile decorations. You name it, your baby will find it soon. To prevent your baby from hurting him/herself, most parents install gates at various places around the house. For instance, at the top and bottom of stairs, blocking a fireplace, or in the middle of a room as a little baby corral. Parents also use them to secure play areas, like a play room, without having to close the door. Baby gates are also great for keeping that curious, jealous, or toy-gobbling dog away from a newborn. Not surprisingly, there are different gates that are better or worse suited for each of these uses.
What kind of baby gate should I buy?
There are a lot of considerations when choosing a baby gate. Here are some of the more important ones:
Where you plan to put the gate matters! Simple swing-open gates are great for doorways and at the top and bottom of stairs. But the ones that are tension-fit require walls on each side to support the outward pressure; do not attempt to install these tension-fit gates in situations where one side is a wall and the other side is a railing post (like at the top or bottom of stairs). The outward pressure will push the railings to the side and eventually give you a wobbly railing. Also, do not install a gate at the top of the stairs if it has a bottom rail - this is a serious tripping hazard, and should always be avoided. Because of these different uses of baby gates, below we categorize gates by their primary uses: ordinary/doorways, versus top-of-stairs.
The gate needs to be sturdy! Babies will amaze you with their ability to foil all your best attempts to keep them safe. They will try to pull the gate, push the gate, climb the gate, lean on the gate, or bite the gate! All of the gates recommended below are rated as the best in terms of sturdiness.
The locking mechanism needs to be child-proof! This seems obvious, but there are a lot of gates on the market with locks that babies figure out before their second birthday. Avoid gates with a simple button lock, or a simple lift-open mechanism. Your baby may not figure out how to open the gate now, but give him or her another year and you'll be kicking yourself for not buying a gate with a more child-proof lock. All of the gates recommended below have well reviewed locking mechanisms.
Little fingers pinch very easily! We don't recommend any of the wooden expanding gates, or the gates with the pressure locking bars. These invite finger pinchings, and in some cases lacerations, and should be avoided. They're great for pets, however!
You want to open the gate with one hand! Carrying the baby? A laundry basket? Groceries? Talking on the phone? The last thing you'll want to do is put something down because both hands are required to open the gate. All of the gates recommended below have well-reviewed locking mechanisms that can be opened with one hand.
Make sure your doorway isn't too wide! Some baby gates come with extensions to accomodate larger doorways, but other gates do not. If your door opening is greater than 31" wide, then you will likely need at least one extension. So keep this in mind. In our recommendations below, we provide specifications regarding door widths.
Here are the best baby gates, NOT for top of stairs (those are below)!
1. North States Supergate Easy Close Metal Gate (in Bronze or White, about $50). The North States Supergate is one of the best reviewed gates on the market, and is fairly priced. It is a tension gate, meaning that there is no assembly required, it basically squeezes itself into your doorway. It has a 2" tall threshold on the bottom, so it is NOT recommended for use at the top of stairs. Parents report that the gate is very sturdy and uses a clever locking mechanism that has two settings - one that requires only lifting the gate to open it, and another that involves twisting the lock for extra security. In both cases, parents report that it only takes a couple minutes of practice to perfect one-hand opening. The gate also swings both directions for convenience, and automatically swings closed (unless you lock into the open position). The gate includes extensions, and in our testing we found that it can fit doorways from about 31" to 38" wide. It is also available in white or bronze.
2. Summer Infant Multi-Use Deco Extra Tall Walk-Thru Gate (about $65). The Summer Infant gate is basically tied with the #1 North States gate, so deciding whether to make it #1 or #2 was difficult. The gates differ in two primary ways. First, the Summer Infant gate is 36" tall while the North States gate is only 28" tall. It is difficult to know whether this is a pro or con. On the plus side, parents don't need to reach down so far to open the gate, and they don't need to worry about climbing as much. On the negative side, in our testing we realized that a lot of men and taller women like to simply step over the gate sometimes, especially when their hands are full or they're in a hurry. You will be hard pressed to step over the Summer Infant gate, so that's a definite down-side of its tallness. Second, the Summer Infant gate swings shut and locks automatically, which is super helpful - no more turning around and pushing it shut. However, this also means that it uses a stop bracket (which is reversible to change swing direction), which sometimes snags your pants leg as you pass through. Couple that with the narrow opening on both units (about 18" wide opening), and it can be a pain sometimes. The North States gate swings both ways for convenience, but doesn't auto-close like this one. Also, the Summer Infant gate is tension-mounted (even with the hardware kit, it's still tension-mounted) and very sensitive to the amount of tension you set during installation; if you over-tension, it will squeeze the opening too narrow and the gate won't shot; this isn't specific to this gate, however, so if you find your gate isn't closing properly always check tension first. So there are some pros and cons for each, and you'll need to make an informed decision for your particular situation. Overall, however, you're getting the best gates currenty on the baby market, regardless of whether you choose the Summer Infant or North States Supergate. Note that the Summer Infant gate markets itself (on Amazon and on its own website) as good for use in doorways or at the top of bottom of stairs. They do this by allowing you to choose whether you're using a tension-fit (doorways) or mounted (stairs) option, while making sure you change gate swing direction so it doesn't open over the stairs. In our opinion, however, because the gate has a bar across the bottom that may pose a tripping hazard, we do not recommend installing it at the top of stairs. In fact, a parent emailed us and let us know that the instruction manual for the Deco actually says "to prevent falls, never use at top of stairs." (so that's odd!) In our testing, the widest doorway we could fit the gate into was 40".
3. DreamBaby Chelsea Extra Tall and Wide Auto-Close Gate (about $90). The DreamBaby gate is very similar to the North States option above. It is a tension gate with a 2" threshold along the bottom edge, very sturdy construction, a child-proof locking mechanism, one-handed opening, swings both directions, and automatically swings shut. This gate, if bought from Amazon, includes extensions for people with doorways larger than the typical 31", which is why it's the "extra tall and wide" version. In our tests, we could get it to fit a doorway as small as 38" wide, and as wide as about 70" (which is more like an opening between rooms than a doorway!). If your doorway is smaller (normal, like 28-32" wide), you can get the same gate but not as wide for about $50. As with any gate, be careful of small parts (screws, nuts) that can fall off if not tightened properly, so be sure to occassionally check the gate for loose parts.
4. Munchkin Easy Close Metal Gate (about $50). The Munchkin Easy Close gate is well-reviewed, but not quite as well as the North States or DreamBaby models. It is also a tension gate with a 2" threshold along the bottom edge. The locking mechanism is well-reviewed as highly child-proof. The gate does not have an auto-close feature, and some parents report that it can be annoyingly difficult to push closed sometimes, particularly when you only have one hand available. Parents also report that this particular tension-fit gate requires quite a bit of outward pressure for mounting, so it is very restricted to solid doorway frames on the sides. Fits doorways up to 35" wide when using included extensions.
Here are the best baby gates for the top of stairs.
The top of the stairs is a difficult and dangerous location, and there are only a few top-of-stairs gates that we recommend. Here are our criteria: no step-over bar along the bottom edge (you do not want tripping at the top of your stairs!), can be attached to a variety of configurations (railing posts, walls with moldings), and is well-reviewed by a variety of websites.
1. Kidco Safeway Safety Gate for top-of-stairs (about $45). This is the best all-around top of the stairs gate for 2016. We also think it deserves a spot on the doorway list above, but this is specifically designed for the top of the stairs so we'll keep it here. The Kidco gate meets a lot of the criteria we mention above: no step-over bar along bottom edge, can be attached to railing posts and/or walls, and is well-reviewed. It also has one-handed operation, doesn't automatically swing shut, and is mostly reviewed as sturdy and reliable. It also prevents swinging out over the stairs with a one-direction swing/hinge mechanism. It is also available in black or white, to suit different styles. Some reviewers note that the provided screws are a bit too short and don't have a strong enough hold, so they purchase different screws to use with this gate. But at about $10 cheaper than the Regalo, for people who don't mind drilling/screwing into their railings, this could be a good option. People report using it on openings from 28" to 43.5" wide.
2. Cardinal Gates Auto-Lock Gate (about $70). This Cardinal gate comes in white (pictured) and black. It uses a really unique locking mechanism that none of our testing kiddos could figure out. The best part is that it took about 5 tries for adults to master it, and once you did it was easily unlocked with one hand. The secret is to push down on both latch tabs while pulling up on the gate. Very tough for a kid to figure out, which is good. It meets all of the criteria we mention above: no step-over bar along bottom edge, it can be attached to railing posts and/or walls, and is very well-reviewed. It doesn't swing shut automatically behind you, and can be mounted at up to a 30-degree angle for those imperfect stairway scenarios. Notice how the one pictured is mounted at an angle, that's a great capability that can fit basically all sorts of wall and railing layouts. It does have a stop-bracket to prevent swinging out over the stairs, but this is optional if you decide not to install it. The width adjusts from 26" to 40" wide, and it is just under 30" tall. In our testing, we found the installation a little complicated, but note that Amazon has a video on their listing that shows a step-by-step installation. Very helpful for those who aren't super handy!
3. North State Supergate Easy Swing and Lock Metal Gate for top-of-stairs (about $50). The North State gate for the top-of-stairs is basically tied for second place - it's a toss-up between the Kidco and North State options. It has all the great features as the Kidco gate, such as one-handed open, reviewed as sturdy and reliable. Here are the same differences: the North State gate swings shut automatically, is brown/bronze rather than white or black, and goes a bit wider (up to about 46"). People actually report that the North State locking mechanism is a bit better than the Kidco, since you do not have to lift the gate to close it. People report using it on openings from 28" to 46" (note that reviewers say NOT 48" as listed on websites) wide.
4. Regalo top-of-stairs Gate (about $55) (see also see extra tall version, about $60). The Regalo top-of-stairs gate fits all of our criteria, and has several other great features. First, this is one of the only gates on the market that attaches without having to drill holes or install screws into your railing posts. It uses Velcro straps. Second, it can be opened and closed with one hand, and does not automatically swing shut (so you can leave it open during naps, or when everyone is downstairs already). Third, the railing comes with hardware so that you can attach it to two railings (one on each side), two walls (one on each side), or a wall on one side and railing on the other. Finally, the gate is well-reviewed for being sturdy, reliable, difficult for little kid hands to open, and long-lasting. The gate also swings both directions for convenience, though some may not like it swinging out over the stairs. People report using it on openings from 26" to 42" wide. A few limitations though. First, one of our testing babies figured out how to rip open the velcro and basically remove the entire gate from the railing! So that was scary. Also, there have been some recent reports about lower quality craftsmanship, like some flaking paint, failed welding points, etc. Note that our unit didn't have any of these issues, but just keep that in mind.