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.'

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.

"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."

Ironically, this anxiety comes at a time when almost every aspect of child health and well-being is improving. "Contemporary parents feel it's harder and harder to raise children, and the world is more and more dangerous," Anderegg says. "But that is objectively not true," at least for middle-class and upper-middle-class children.

Even a useful product, such as a bicycle helmet, can make people more anxious, Anderegg adds, by focusing attention on the fact that something bad might happen.

Chris Falk recalls his carefree childhood in the 1960s: "My parents were quite concerned about my safety and well-being, but they followed the accepted parenting practices of the 1960s." He and his brother rarely wore car seat belts. They played with toys now considered "choke hazards," and they rode in the bed of their grandfather's pickup truck. By contrast, his sons, ages 2 and 5, ride in car seats, wear bicycle helmets, and sleep in flame- retardant pajamas.

"It makes me a bit sad to think that my sons won't enjoy the freedom from anxiety I enjoyed," says Mr. Falk, media director at the American Association of Poison Control Centers in Washington. "But I'm glad to have them protected by modern science and research."

Michael Shmarak of Chicago, whose first child is due next week, received his introduction to the world of parental safety when he and his wife walked through Babies R Us recently. "All I could do was think we were playing a game of 'Baby Fear Factor,' " he says. "Nearly everything for children is being marketed with 'security' in mind."

Even so, he sees beneficial effects. "What all these products have done is raise the level of awareness as to what the responsibilities of a parent really are. There is no price you can put on a child's life. So every parent can choose whether a product is worth it to them."

Not all parental fear focuses on children's physical safety. As the mother of two teenagers, Mimi Doe of Concord, Mass., sees parents making purchases to assuage fears about their children's future success.

"Parents are buying software and tutoring services to give their kids a leg up," Mrs. Doe says. "That's the toxic fear we're imposing on our children. Parents are taking out second mortgages on their homes just so they can hire college consultants to get [their children] into what they hope is a better school."

Some parents find help in a spiritual perspective

At the same time, Doe, author of "Nurturing Your Teenager's Soul," finds a silver lining. This anxiety is leading some parents to a spiritual approach, she says. "Spirituality is the antidote for the ticker tape of messages that come across their consciousness every day: 'Give your kids a leg up, watch out for terrorists, don't travel.' [Spirituality is] a little bit of a last laugh on the toxic marketing machine that says, 'Find their fear, develop a product to address it, and make millions.' "

Still, back at the baby superstore, Gordon finds many parents confused about what they should and shouldn't buy. "Especially if your friends have it, you feel you need it. As you get more experienced, you have a filter that says, 'I don't need that.' "

As the author of "Consumer Reports Best Baby Products," she offers recommendations: Buy a new crib that meets current safety standards. Buy a new car seat and be sure it is installed correctly. Use safety gates for stairs and windows, and padded corners for coffee tables. A toy chest should have air holes or a lid that doesn't close all the way.

Her don't-buy list includes crib bumpers and crib positioners, which can pose suffocation hazards. A baby bathtub thermometer is unnecessary. "You can gauge the temperature yourself," Gordon says, "and also turn down the water heater to 120 degrees."

Families living in small houses don't need a baby monitor, she adds. She also draws the line at monitors to take in the shower.

Whatever a child's age, Gordon says, parents must pay attention to possible dangers, but also trust their instincts. "A lot of it is your actions. It's good to be aware, but you don't necessarily need a product to protect you. You can't expect yourself to monitor [your children] all the time. That's too much."

For Troy Scheer, keeping children safe comes down to a balancing act, combining wisdom with common sense.

"It can't get to the point where we're so afraid to do every little thing with our children that we isolate them in this bubble," says Mr. Scheer, a father in Carrollton, Texas. "It falls back on parents to make decisions, and not get caught up into thinking that they have to have every device that's out there or their child is not going to be safe."

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