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Bubble Babies

The Kiddie-Safety Industrial Complex wants me to danger-proof my house, yard, and car to within an inch of my child's life. Why I'm not buying what they're selling.

Lenore Skenazy
Reader's Digest
July 27, 2009

When your baby-goods store is selling saline-soaked, aloe-treated, grape-scented tissues designed to "ease" the process of blowing your kid's nose, it is safe to say: There is no kiddie problem too small, no discomfort too negligible, no danger too remote, that some manufacturer won't come along and peddle a pricey product to prevent it.

After first scaring parents to death.

In the Kiddie-Safety Industrial Complex, parents are gobbling up hitherto unheard-of stuff like those Boogie Wipes tissues, toy wagons with seat belts, sure-grip gloves for lifting baby out of the bath, and even knee pads for babies to wear when they start to crawl over that crushed glass you chose instead of carpeting for the nursery.

Oh, you didn't? Well, the knee pads will still set you back $19.95 a pair. Forget the fact that 300,000 years of human evolution has already given babies built-in knee pads called fat. And how to explain "baby moisturizer"? Clearly, baby skin just isn't soft enough. And what about the Thudguard? That's a helmet you're supposed to strap onto your baby the minute she starts to toddle because skulls just don't do the trick anymore. As the Thudguard's website notes (beneath pictures of helmeted toddlers who look as if they've all just had brain surgery): A head injury can be "traumatic for both parent and infant."

So true. That's why I asked Dr. F. Sessions Cole, chief medical officer and director of the St. Louis Children's Hospital, how many children he's treated for life-threatening brain trauma as a result of learning to walk. He could not recall a single one.

You don't get hard science when you start buying baby safety products; you get hard fear. The companies plant a big "God forbid, what if?" in your brain, and suddenly, there you are at Buybuy Baby—tightly gripping a bottle of Valium—wandering the aisles in search of a baby mattress sensor. These are pads you put under the mattress that will sound an alarm if your child makes no movement for 20 seconds. The unstated assumption is that if you hear the alarm, you can race in to prevent every parent's worst nightmare: sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

Two million of the Angelcare movement and sound monitors have been sold at $120 a pop, according to the company's product manager, Roxane Popoviciu. But she can't say how many deaths they have prevented, if any. "They're not medical products," she demurred. So I asked Dr. Sydney Spiesel, a pediatrician and professor at Yale, how helpful such a device is.

"I don't believe it'll save a single child," he said. The sad fact seems to be that when children die of SIDS, they don't give 20 seconds' notice. That's why it's called sudden.

It's also rare, affecting about one child in 2,000. And by far the best preventive measure you can take, said Dr. Spiesel, is putting your child to sleep on his or her back. But now that these sensors are on the market, a good parent has to buy one, right? You don't want to be the mom or dad who didn't do everything possible to prevent even the most unlikely danger.

Tali Hylen felt exactly that way, so she bought a sensor when her daughter was born. But at night when she'd go in to breast-feed, Hylen says, "I would forget to switch it off." With the baby off the pad, the alarm shrieked bloody murder, "scaring the living daylights out of me, baby, husband, and dog!" After a few weeks, Hylen yanked it out.

Still, she swears by the camera, which came with a pricey flat-screen monitor; she keeps it focused on her daughter's crib so she can run in whenever she sees her pull her blanket over her head. "My mom keeps telling me not to worry about that," Hylen admits.

The specters of death and injury lurk in every aisle of the baby store, a place you'd think would be warm and cheerful. The Kiddie-Safety Industrial Complex is dedicated to convincing parents that "our own eyes and ears are not enough to protect our children," says Harvard psychologist Susan Linn. That explains fear gear like the plastic bathwater turtle. Put it in your baby's bath, and if the word hot appears on the turtle's tummy, your water is, well … figure it out.

Of course, there's another way to figure out the same thing. You could put your wrist in the water. In fact, the turtle comes with a warning: "Adult should always place hand in bathwater to test the temperature before placing baby in tub."

So what is the point of this perky plastic pet? There isn't one. It's useless. But there it is, in the bath aisle at Babies"R"Us, instilling doubt: Maybe your own wrist isn't enough.

Maybe your own arms aren't enough either. That's why, instead of just holding them by the hands, you can buy your little ones a set of Walking Wings, a sort of marionette-like getup that you use to keep them aloft while they learn to walk. This way, according to the package, the baby "gains confidence and independence."

Would kids not gain confidence and independence without the wings? Come on! They're learning to walk. Confidence and independence—more than most parents want, in fact—are guaranteed. The product goes on to promise "no tugging and twisting of little arms," as if holding children the old-fashioned way is torturing them.

But the true torture, of course, is reserved for those of us who can eat solid food. Right and left, we're told that we are incapable of ushering our children through childhood without a truckload of baby tackle. As Paula Meredith-Faris, the mother of Tali-with-the-flat-screen-monitor, says, "I walk through Babies"R"Us, and I think, How did we ever do it without all this stuff?"

Did You Grow Up With Any of These?

Shopping cart liners

Cloth liners you plop into the grocery cart before putting your child in. The idea is to prevent your little pumpkin from touching any germs. Sure, shopping carts are loaded with germs, but so is everything else. The bigger problem kids face is getting their little legs out of those even littler holes.

Wipe warmers
Perfect if you want your child to grow up expecting a warm washcloth at the dinner table. And a prewarmed bed. And maybe prewarmed socks. "There's a sense that babies are never supposed to be frustrated, that everything in their lives is supposed to be perfect," says Harvard's Susan Linn. But coping with little frustrations teaches children to cope with bigger ones later on. Even bigger than chilly wipes.

Pint-size, disposable gloves that a young Howard Hughes would have (g)loved. Put them on your moppets' hands anytime they leave your sterilized home. "Keeps kids safe from germs in public places," promises the ad copy. Of course, this is the same ad copy that promises, "Fun to wear!" I'll bet.

Toe toppers
Individual nubs you place over baby's toes, like pencil erasers, to prevent them from getting stubbed. Actually, I just made those up. The toppers, I mean. But I'm sure they'll be on the market soon.

Lenore Skenazy is the author of Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry.






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