Outfitting a nursery - without the gold-plated crib

You can hardly get inside the doors of today's trendy baby furnishings stores without bumping into pastel cloud mobiles or tripping over colossal stuffed hippopotamuses.

Sporting names like ''Little Bo-tique'' and ''Welcome Babee,'' these stores are riding the crest of the current baby boomlet in the United States. A quick glance at $1,200 gold-plated cribs, $400 changing tables, and $100 cloth wall hangings suggests that elegance in the nursery is au courant.

But is it? Are today's first-time, dual-career parents spending their life savings on mirrors in the shapes of butterflies and pink wooden letters that proclaim ''Rachel''?

Some apparently are, if overheard conversations are a reliable gauge of buying patterns. ''Get whatever you like,'' one young husband whispered to his maternity-frocked wife. ''Nothing's too good for our kid.''

Many couples, however, are finding that their favorite baby furnishings are heirlooms that have been passed around the family for generations or items that are on loan from friends.

''We're using an old cradle that we resurrected from my grandfather's basement,'' says Gail Torkelson, mother of eight-week-old Sarah. ''It's big, and up off the ground, and really all we need right now and for the next three or four months.''

Mrs. Torkelson says she found plenty of lists of ''necessities'' in the baby books and magazines she read before Sarah's arrival. But instead of going out and buying every recommended item, she and her husband, Andrew, decided to shop for furnishings as the need arose.

So far they've converted an old chest of drawers into a changing table by covering it with a bassinette-type mattress, rented a car seat from a local co-op, and borrowed an English pram from a friend. The only item left on their original shopping list is a crib.

''It's something we know we'll need because we plan to have at least one more child,'' Mrs. Torkelson says. ''And it's something we'd like to keep in the family because my mom didn't keep any of our baby furniture and really regrets it today.'' The Torkelsons have seen a handmade crib of cherry wood that matches the rest of their furniture and think that it would be a good investment for $ 300.

Like the Torkelsons, Linda and George Sjoberg spent about four months preparing for their daughter Molly's arrival. They converted their guest room to a nursery by stripping off the wallpaper, giving the room a fresh coat of paint, and putting up colorful posters and handmade curtains. Linda also turned an old dresser into a changing table by covering it with a new pad, and borrowed a car seat and bassinette from friends. The Sjobergs' only purchases were a crib and mattress for about $300, and a stroller from a ''junk shop'' for $7.

''When we went from a two-income family to one income, we decided we had to keep things simple,'' Linda says. ''As it turned out, we got everything we needed in showers or from friends. The only thing we had to buy in the end was a crib.''

From the recommended lists of baby furnishings that many stores and books suggest, most couples agree that a crib is their most important purchase. Some see it as a long-term investment, while others find it's the one item that's difficult to improvise.

A large children's furnishings store often will carry 40 or 50 models of cribs, ranging in price from $90 to more than $300. ''Crib and bed'' units, featuring drawers and storage space with a crib that can be converted to a youth bed after several years, generally start at $500 and can go as high as $1,200.

Many baby books have advice for parents looking for used cribs. The authors of ''Practical Pregnancy'' (New York, Warner Books) include some specific safety checks:

* Be sure crib slats are no more than 23/8 inches apart, in conformity with 1973 federal regulations.

* If you can fit two fingers between the mattress and crib, the mattress is too small. If it's in good condition, however, rolled towels can be stuffed into the space between the mattress and crib frame.

* With the crib sides up, the distance between the mattress support and the top of the drop side should be 26 inches. With the crib side lowered, the top of the drop side should be at least nine inches above the mattress support.

* All wooden surfaces should be smooth and splinter-free. Paint should be nontoxic. Teething rails should be secure.

* All hardware should be free of sharp or rough edges.

* Latches on drop sides should be secure to prevent accidental release.

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