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Bringing up baby in a bubble

Marketers tap into American parents' anxiety about child safety with a plethora of products that promise to protect children from a variety of 'dangers.'

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 19, 2005

As Sandra Gordon prepared for the birth of her first child five years ago, she did what many new parents do: She headed to a baby superstore. Pushing her cart through aisles piled high with the latest products, each one seeming to whisper "Buy me," she found the choices overwhelming. She realized that many items appealed to parents' understandable desire to protect children from every possible harm.

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"I was a classic case," recalls Ms. Gordon, of Weston, Conn. "I went in with a basic list, but I kept seeing all these other things and thinking, 'Oh, I didn't know I needed that.' I was a marketer's dream."

That's an admission many parents can make these days as they seek the best equipment for their children, particularly products that promise safety and security. In a world perceived as ever more dangerous, they are filling carts with everything from baby monitors and childproofing devices to nursery air purifiers and child ID kits. As a result, Gordon notes, baby and child safety gear has ballooned into a billion-dollar industry in the United States - part of the $6 billion juvenile products market.

Yet as manufacturers capitalize on the sense of responsibility and inadequacy new parents feel, are they marketing safety or fear? The answer is: perhaps both.

The promise: Buy this and your child will be safe

Promoters for a shopping-cart cover assure parents that "protecting babies from the harmful bacteria on shopping carts has never been easier." Another company boasts that a similar product "keeps little ones from teething on unsanitary cart handles!"

Concerned parents who eat out can take along a special high-chair cover. "If you're worried about unsanitary restaurant high chairs, take matters into your own hands by protecting your baby or toddler from all those lurking microorganisms," one manufacturer says.

Elsewhere, a remote fever monitor "takes your child's temperature abdominally every 5 seconds and transmits it to the parents' monitor every 10 seconds." And a child distance monitor provides "an early warning alarm system that detects when a child strays too far from adult supervision." The child's transmitter includes a panic button.

For older children, a security-alarm backpack features a high-decibel alarm and a flashing strobe light that can be activated by pulling a rip cord.

Are parents overprotecting children?

Although these products may offer potential advantages, some critics say the collective effect of so many safety-oriented items feeds parental fears, encouraging them to want more. "We provide the fertile terrain for this product development and the marketing to flourish in," says Judith Warner, the mother of two young daughters and author of "Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety."

Concerned that Americans may be raising "a nation of sissies," Ms. Warner warns that by being overprotective, "parents are basically weakening their children."

Some medical researchers, she notes, think the dramatic increase in peanut allergies stems in part from keeping children too clean. "They found that the immune system of children on farms was a lot stronger than children in suburbs," she says. "They hypothesized that exposure to dirt bolstered their immune system in a way that made them hardier."

Calling that "a fantastic metaphor for the way we parent right now," Warner says, "We want to create these all-but-sterile environments, these protected environments."

She wonders about "the larger cost of bringing children up in a bubble," adding, "Any psychologist will tell you it's damaging to grow up with a very anxious parent. That attitude is more damaging than the actual threat."

Some parental fear may stem from smaller family size, says David Anderegg, author of "Worried All the Time" and a family therapist in Lenox, Mass. Although many parents are very anxious about their first child, with later children they understand how robust children are, he says. "But a lot of people only have one child." [Editor's note: The original version misstated the book title.]

Media hype also feeds parental anxiety. "Every article about children is described as a crisis or an epidemic," Mr. Anderegg says. "Part of that is simply to get attention, and it works. But it does have the effect of making parents feel less and less safe - less and less able to assess the reality of risk to children."