By the time a child is 5 years old, his parents will have exhausted boxes of Band-Aids, made several late-night calls to the pediatrician, and had a bunch of scary moments.
If they're lucky, that is.
If they're less fortunate, their child will be one of the 1,625,000 under age 5 that each year has a consumer-product-related injury requiring a trip to the hospital.
An object doesn't have to be inherently unsafe to be dangerous; a problem can also stem from how it is used. Baby walkers, for example, provide parents with a convenient place to park their infants. But last year, more than 15,000 children were injured seriously enough to require hospital treatment as a result of walker-related accidents.
"They add to the child's mobility, far more than the parent can expect," says consumer advocate Jack Gillis. "Your once-sedentary child can now touch a hot oven, reach up and bite a poisonous plant or scoot down a flight of stairs."
A partial solution has been provided by Gerber's Century Products division, which added a pair of legs to the latest model of its Super Coupe walker. If the parent leaves the room, the legs can be flipped down and the child will be immobilized.
"But who would have known a problem existed in the first place, until an accident happened?" asks Gillis. "It's almost impossible for parents to do enough research to make a perfect choice in the products and services they buy."
Gillis and Mary Ellen Fise are doing some of that research. Their new book, The Childwise Catalog: A Consumer Guide to Buying the Safest and Best Products for Your Children (Pocket, $6.95), draws together a mass of government and private information.
Fise, 29, is product safety director for the Consumer Federation of America, a nonprofit advocacy group. Gillis, 35, also wrote The Car Book, a comparative consumer guide to automobiles, and is director of public affairs for CFA. Both have young children.
"People think of safety information as being innate -- everyone knows you shouldn't let kids play with matches or leave them alone on top of the changing table," says Fise. "But there are also a lot of injuries and deaths that result from conditions parents could never anticipate. A crib may look safe, but if the mattress supports aren't secure enough, or if the corner posts are too tall, there's the possibility of trouble."
"Because of the current atmosphere of deregulation," adds Gillis, "it's harder to get information from the government, and there's less regulatory oversight. It's 'buyer beware' again. And the marketing blitz that's being aimed at new parents is unprecedented."
Many new products are unfamiliar, sophisticated or slick, to the point where parents can lose their ability to see what's needed. Take the hook-on highchair.
"The majority of these on the market are clearly unsafe, but because it's new and popular, many parents don't have the intuitive sense to tell them what to look for -- namely, safety clamps that attach the chair more firmly to the table, and a safety belt. If there's no clamp, and a child bounces up and down -- as they often do -- the chair could fall." Of 13 popular hook-on chairs listed in The Childwise Catalog, only four have clamps.
Gillis and Fise offer this general advice: Be alert to hazards associated with such hand-me-down products as wooden baby gates, wooden chests without lid supports, and cribs; remember the five major toy hazards (small parts, sharp points and edges, loud noises, propelled parts and electricity); purchase medicines in child-resistant containers; buy strollers, carriages, highchairs and playpens that comply with safety standards (look for the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association seal); and search out art supplies that have the Art and Craft Materials Institute's AP/CP safety certification mark.
While some parents have the attitude that "if it's on the market, it must be safe," very little children's equipment is previously tested by the government, says Gillis. Exceptions are child safety seats, which must meet federal crash test standards, and products with small parts, which must be labeled as inappropriate for children under 3.
However, Gillis says, "we found a number of toys that clearly failed the small-parts standard that contained no age information. The government is quite lax on this, so parents have to be careful."
The Childwise Catalog covers newborns through age 5, and includes a comprehensive evaluation of basic items new parents will need or want, including swings, crib toys and accessories, highchairs, strollers, tricycles, rattles and night lights. Products that the government has ruled unsafe are listed by name and manufacturer.
In one chapter, Americans for Democratic Action ratings are used to match the "Toy Box" against the "Trash Box." While Remco's Baby Cry & Dry is "our nominee for the worst doll of the year," good marks are handed out to many toys, including Cabbage Patch kids ("This doll doesn't DO anything tricky -- so it's up to the child to be responsible for loving it").
"We didn't want this to be a doom and gloom prophecy," says Gillis. "There are hundreds of new products on the market that are fantastic."
Mattel, he notes, is treating all small parts associated with Barbie doll and GI Joe action figures with barium, so they'll show up on an X-ray if swallowed. And Fisher-Price roller skates now include an optional wheel control mechanism that will prevent backward slides.
It's possible to separate the good products from the bad, the authors say; you can also be a careful parent without being neurotic.
"It's nice to have a relaxed approach to parenting," says Fise, "but why not make it a relaxed safe approach?"