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How to Child-Proof Your Houseguests

By Amalah

First off, I do love my MIL but I just don’t know what to do anymore. She comes to visit every couple months and I feel like I have a third child when she comes. This last time she locked herself out of the house (while my hubby and I were out for my birthday) with my 7 month old inside. I was hysterical in the car racing home (we were about 20 minutes away) and the baby was in her jumper- thankfully- so she couldn’t get into anything and my MIL could see her in through the window. When we arrived back she instantly wanted to joke about the whole situation and I have a great sense of humor but it was a little too soon to joke about it. I think I handled it very well and told her that it could have happened to anyone, blah blah but then it got worse.

The day after she left I got my 7 month up in the am and was letting her crawl around her room (the same room MIL sleeps in when she visits) and I hear her choking on something at first I thought she was just spitting up (bad reflux in the morning) until I saw something in her hand- it was a piece of wax/silicone ear plug (the ones you can mold into balls to just stick in your ear) at that moment I realized that my baby just swallowed one and was holding the other. I jumped up and got my husband and we called the hospital which led to us going to our doctor, calling poison control, and then finally deciding that we need to wait and see and muddle through her poop- oh what fun! OK- so who would leave ear plugs like that on the floor in a baby’s room? Oh wait I forgot something- this has happened 2x before with my nephews but the plugs were caught before swallowed.

Oh and there’s more…2x she has dropped medications on the floor without knowing and my toddler almost ate one and the other I found on the floor. After that we asked her to only take her meds at the sink and she has yet to listen to that.

What do I do… tell her she can’t visit until she becomes a responsible adult? It’s just so hard for me to understand how someone could be so careless, especially someone who has raised her own children. Of course I have what I like to call “mommy guilt” and think it’s my fault that she swallowed it, I didn’t have my eyes on her at that very moment, but I did clean the room after she left and since the stuff is the same color as the rug I didn’t see it but maybe I should have known from her history not to assume anything. I’m just so mad for her irresponsibility and I don’t know what to do- help!


Can you tell her she can’t visit until she becomes a responsible adult? No. You can’t. Well, obviously you CAN, but I don’t think ripping the family apart and barring access to grandchildren is a reasonable reaction to the problem.

A couple thoughts, right off the bat: You don’t mention how old your MIL is…but is it at all possible that she’s experiencing some memory loss? The earliest signs of dementia include problems with short-term memory, difficulty performing familiar tasks, poor judgment and misplacing/losing track of things. As in, forgetting that you asked her to keep meds by the sink, losing pills and earplugs, getting locked out of the house and not fully grasping the seriousness of her actions. If you’re noticing a definite decline and increase in this sort of behavior, SAY SOMETHING to your husband, and encourage her to get to a doctor ASAP.

Beyond that, though, I’d encourage you to take a DEEP BREATH and remember this wonderfully annoying cliche: nobody’s perfect. I imagine plenty of mothers have locked themselves out of the house with their baby inside. Hell, if you’ve ever locked your keys in the car (guilty!) you know that it only take a second of absent-mindedness and the door is closing oh CRAP my KEYS too late. Plenty of us have accidentally missed a choking hazard while cleaning up, or forgotten to latch a baby gate, or spaced on who was supposed to pick the kids up from school. If your MIL is having memory problems, or doesn’t sleep as well in unfamiliar places (the earplugs do suggest she’s an easily-disturbed sleeper), or is just generally sort of spacey, she’s going to be less tuned-in to this sort of thing than you are.

I know, though, that feeling. Even though everything was fine in the end, OH MY GOD. MY BABY. My father-in-law, in a fit of…I don’t even KNOW what…mistook a container of Clorox Disinfecting Wipes for the baby wipes and used them on my poor three-year-old’s bottom for a solid week before I realized what he was doing — all while we were frantically rewashing clothing and checking food labels in an attempt to figure out the source of my son’s mysterious, nasty rash. I was…not happy, to say the least, and full of alternating fits of guilt (for having the Clorox wipes in the kids’ bathroom in the first place) and utter annoyance (but who would use ANYTHING with a giant Clorox label on SKIN, ANY SKIN, much less THAT SKIN).

A little butt balm later, everything was fine. My FIL was probably more rattled by it than my son. Your MIL was probably more rattled and embarrassed than she let on re: the locked-out-of-the-house thing, and really, you have to admit there was probably no reaction from her that would have made you happy. My FIL apologized endlessly for days, and I kept gritting my teeth and assuring him that oh, it’s fine! mistakes happen! could happen to anybody! I really just wanted to DROP IT, because every apology sent me back to that moment of discovery and GAHHHH HEAD EXPLODEY.

In the end, though — as much as we want and hope family members will love and care for our children the way we do, they are OUR children, and therefore OUR responsibility. Your MIL’s visits probably will be a bit like having a third child to hover over. If you cannot offer her a space to stay other than the baby’s room, you’ll need to thoroughly sweep the room after she leaves. Hit The Container Store or Ikea before her next visit. Buy her a pill organizer and keep it in the bathroom. Help her unpack as soon as she arrives, and make sure you have specific, non-baby-accessible places for her non-baby-friendly items. (There’s something about living out of a suitcase that makes it easier for things to get scattered or lost. Offer drawers, hangers, boxes, etc.) No babysitting until you’ve determined that her memory is still sound and/or you’ve made it through a couple visits without incident.

Your daughter won’t remember the time she swallowed Grandma’s earplug. She will remember the time she spent with Grandma, though, and the books and games and extra love and maybe some bittersweet memories about how she was always so silly and absentminded and would look for her glasses that were right on top of her head! Oh, Grandma.

Photo by Mirko Macari

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • anon today

    April 17, 2009 at 11:10 am

    Oh look! Someone else has my MIL! Mine went so far as to accidentally break my toddler’s arm by lifting him the wrong way, but otherwise sounds familiar.
    The rule we learned is that even if someone is very related to you, and even if other children have survived having this person as a parent, that doesn’t mean that you have to assume he or she is an adequate caregiver for your child. Particularly when children are young and vulnerable, it is okay to say, “I’m just not comfortable having this parent be an unaccompanied caregiver.” And to now know that this parent is going to be unreliable about pointy/small-chokable/poisonous objects, etc. is useful information for the person who is supervising.
    This is a temporary situation. It will be more fun for her to be dotty Grandma when she no longer poses a direct danger.

  • Darcey

    April 17, 2009 at 11:15 am

    Yeah, I think that unless it’s a medical issue (i.e., dementia, as Amy said), then it should just be chalked up to the whole imperfectly human thing.
    My grandmother was notorious for things like that (low drawers that were easy to crawl to and had sharp objects, leaving pens and eye glasses and medications in easy reach), and even had an incident where she turned around one moment too long, and I managed to crawl onto the back of a couch, which happened to rest against a giant window. Milliseconds before I fell through, she grabbed my little arm and pulled me away, and accidentally pulled my arm out of the socket.
    She felt horrible. For weeks. My mom flipped, but realized (like locking yourself out) it could happen to ANYBODY.
    I don’t remember that I was ever injured like that, but just remember how much my grandmother loved me.

  • JennyMooMeow

    April 17, 2009 at 2:11 pm

    Yikes and I thought my MIL was bad. Still, my MIL is totally irresponsible to the point of leaving kiddo wailing with a dirty diaper from diarrhea with a horrible butt rash from the diarrhea, with a head cold on top of it, and leaving him in that mess until I came back and changed him myself.
    After that, hubby and I decided to never leave her alone with the kids. Period. She has always been a flake and hubby realizes this. She won’t change. So unfortunately, we have to take that into consideration. We hover. We watch out of the corner of our eyes. We have to see what presents she has brought and make sure they don’t have tags or parts that the kids will choke on.
    For raising 4 kids, I don’t know how all four survived. Serious. That would probably explain why my hubby’s family is wacky.

  • Jennifer

    April 17, 2009 at 3:34 pm

    I have nothing to add on the MIL front. Mine live in a different country and have very little access to our 1 yr old when we visit because they are elderly.
    BUT, I do have to mention that my OB/GYN told me that one night her husband was cleaning up their kiddo from a particularly gross vomiting episode. She walked in to find him cleaning the naked child off with Clorox wipes to “kill the germs”. If it can happen to the doc’s kiddos, it can happen to anyone!

  • Sara

    April 17, 2009 at 4:01 pm

    The last time my dad came to town (he’s 54), he offered to watch my two year old son while DH and I went on a date. Soon, it turned into him wanting to drive my son to a non-childproofed house to watch movies. I know his heart was in the right place, but a two year old boy is a TON of work and doesn’t “watch movies.” I didn’t want to hurt my dad’s feelings, so I suggested that we all do something together. During that time, my dad spaced out on the couch and my aunt gave my son gum…so needless to say, my instincts were correct. Maybe you should just emphasize that you’d really like to spend time all together. That way, you can keep an eye on things and she’ll feel good that you want to see her. Also, my son locked me out of the house about a month ago and when I was little, my mom pulled my arm out of the socket. We are both the most hovering, hands on, overprotective type of parents you can find (me a little less so, but still) and things like this actually do happen to anyone.

  • Jess

    April 18, 2009 at 2:15 am

    I think this was such spot on advice. My grandma suffered from some dementia in her later years and I’m sure she did things that drove my parents crazy but I don’t remember that stuff…and just wish I had a few more days to spend with her.
    My initial response was that it did sound like aging issues and early signs of dementia…
    Good advice…especially about taking a deep breath and just being extra careful while she’s there.

  • miriam

    April 18, 2009 at 10:12 am

    Oh, well, I hate my MIL. But it does sound like I would never leave your MIL alone with your kid– total flakeo. I don’t know if she’s always been like that, became like that after her kids grew up and she forgot what babies are like, or she’s actually getting demented.
    Doesn’t sound like I’d trust her in the baby’s room either.
    Can your husband help out with your “third kid” when she visits? Since you are actually on good terms with her, it sounds like it would be pretty easy to come up with a conversation where you could elicit the extra help you’ll need without offending him… and then focus on things your MIL can do with her grandbaby that don’t involve leaving her in any kind of supervisory role. (oh, no– you’ve come all this way! I’m not just going to make you babysit– we’ll ALL go to the park)

  • Carrie

    April 20, 2009 at 10:58 am

    I can only second (or third, whatever it is) the advice that if you don’t feel comfortable leaving your kids with someone, then don’t do it.
    Years of my grandparents being ‘flaky’ culminated with my brother seriously burning his hand and them hiding said burn from my mother and making us kids lie about it. It did not end well, as you can imagine.
    Um…I’m sure your MIL isn’t anywhere near this bad!

  • Kristin

    April 20, 2009 at 1:22 pm

    The first thing I thought of when reading this question and the response is: Even though they raised their own children, that was quite a while ago. We are in the “protect mode” right now. We’re used to scanning every area for potential hazards, keeping our focus (at least mostly!) on our kids and being hyper-vigilant about their protection. Your MIL (it sounds like) is used to living alone and not having to worry about anyone else but herself. I think it’s hard for some people to automatically switch back into the primary caregiver mode. That being said, some grandparents are great at it. But I agree with the others, those that aren’t may not be the ones who should be left alone with our kids.

  • sherry

    April 21, 2009 at 10:45 am

    Hire a babysitter during MIL’s visit. MIL can happily spend “quality time” with the baby, and the sitter will be keeping an eye on both of them.

  • Laura

    April 23, 2009 at 1:31 pm

    Ohhhhh my! Did this bring back memories, right down to the child being 7 months old! Without boring the crap out of everyone, I’ll just say that although we don’t bar access to our kids, my MIL will never, ever be left alone with either of them. She’s just not responsible, and both husband and I know in our hearts that if something bad were to happen, she would lie out her butt about it, even to the detriment of the kids. As others have said, total flake. So, yes, I third or fourth the trust your instincts. Yeah, things can and do happen to anyone, but if your alarm bells are going off, figure out what worst-case scenario YOU can live with and go from there.
    And, if your MIL is anything like mine, in six years or so, she’ll be too preoccupied with reading the paper or taking a nap or watching a non-child-friendly movie in the middle of the day to play with the grandchild who is specifically asking her to. But THAT is a whole other kettle of fish… 🙂

  • rachel

    November 17, 2009 at 3:55 pm

    In the early stages of her dementia, my mother drove me nuts with her utter lack of common sense. Not only did she put out teeny delicate crystal animals for my not-yet-2-year-old to play with, but she left the caps off of her medicines – leading to a late night visit to the emergency room, after I’d caught my daughter with a handful of dopamine. I was furious.
    Thing is, now I wish I’d reacted much more calmly – and focused on enjoying her company while that was still possible. Now, she keeps forgetting really basic things, like that my younger daughter is a girl. So keep an eye on gran, but by all means, grab the opportunity to have her play a meaningful role in her grandchild’s life while that’s still possible.