Trips to baby specialty stores should make wonderful outings for glowing new parents. Grown-ups stuck in stressful professional ruts should relish retreats to these football field-sized fantasyscapes. Sifting through the luxury strollers, computerized cribs that sway like a car, cushy car seats, cassette-playing Big Birds -- what could be more fun?
Try a morning in traffic court. Shopping for baby has turned into a consumer's nightmare, especially when faced with the myriad infant paraphernalia packed into places like Baby Products, Toys R Us and Children's Palace.
Will the walker with flying Mickey Mouse trapeze artists really sharpen your baby's hand-eye coordination like the salesman says? Is the rigid-back highchair better for posture than the more comfortable-looking slouched-seat model? What's with all these slick black-and-white toys and their claims of "visual stimulation?"
What kind of disposal diapers are best -- ultra-trim, ultra-thick or the blue ones made especially for him? Even a decision to supplement with cloth diapers isn't made without a hitch: Some people say that the contaminants from laundering and bleaching rival the damage done by tossing out plastic ones. The new batch of biodegradable disposable diapers? After ordering a case through an ad in Mother Jones magazine, Washington lawyer Maria Landolfo made a quick switch back to cloth: "They were a soggy mess, almost soggier than cloth gets," says the 40-year-old Landolfo, mother of 1-year-old Daniel. Also, some environmentalists are saying, "So what if they biodegrade in 50 years instead of 200?"
"I made the decision to use only cloth diapers, but then you have all these darn choices in diaper wraps," says Janet Fullwood, 37, a Sacramento writer and mother of a 4-month-old boy. "Before my kid was born, I didn't even know what a diaper wrap was. Then I went nursery shopping and got hit with dozens of kinds of wraps and bottles and nipples and strollers and crib bedding and mobiles. I mean, just with cloth diapers alone, you have to choose from pre-folded, unfolded, bird's-eye weave or gauze."
Fullwood laughs loudly, adding, "The most ridiculous thing I've seen is an electric warmer for baby's bottom wipes. That's pushing it."
The most extravagant item she has tried? "A $1,200 electronic bassinet called Nature's Cradle." Fullwood explains she was selected by the manufacturer, Infant Advantage, to test-market this white, rectangular box with a computerized chip that causes it to rock intermittently. She's dubbed it the "space cradle."
"Under the mattress is a speaker that plays womb noises that sound like gentle whooshing waves," Fullwood says. "Then there are bolsters that strap your baby in so that he's held very tightly, as he was in the womb." The result is supposed to be a better sleeper who gains weight rapidly and is generally happier than infants stuck in archaic immovable beds.
Will Fullwood doubled his weight by eight weeks, and his mother swears he gurgles contentedly while lolling in his Jetson ship, but when it comes to nap time he's hardly a snob: "He sleeps just fine anywhere I put him down."
As if the stores weren't daunting enough, dozens of catalogues now flood the mail from companies with names such as The Right Start and One Step Ahead. One invention is "Rock & Sleep," a battery-powered crib-shaker that's supposed to "automatically soothe baby back to slumberland" and eliminate "sleepless nights and frazzled nerves."
Manufacturers of these goods aren't about to let up; they're on a lucrative roll with aging baby boomers. This is, after all, the generation that spawned talking bathroom scales and 15 flavors of vinegar.
It is the older, more sophisticated parents in dual-income couples who are driving companies like Century, Graco, Gerry, Sassy and Aprica Kassai to one-up each other. Manufacturers such as Fisher-Price and Playskool that used to make only toys also have expanded into the juvenile product category. The potential market is enormous: In 1989 there were 4.02 million births in the United States, the highest number since 1964.
"We're seeing a shopper with more disposable income who is looking for variety and innovation, and manufacturers are responding," says Glenn Grant, manager of Baby Products in Arlington.
"There used to be no bath seats," Grant continues. "You got in the tub with the child or bent over and held them. Now you've got bath seats shaped like animals and ones with marinas for boats to dock into. You can now buy a video nursery monitor that hooks up into your TV, and photosensitive night lights. Baby carriers didn't exist a generation ago, and now you have front Snuglis, hip slings, backpacks. Take your pick."
Strawn Cathcart, vice president of U.S. marketing for Fisher-Price, compares his company's diversification strategy to the one that housewares manufacturers are obviously tuned in to. His company branched into nursery goods in 1983 and now is a leader in the industry, commanding more than $700 million in sales worldwide for the fiscal year ending June 1990.
"When we think of our consumers a parallel look is to the kitchen," says Cathcart, an 11-year veteran with Fisher-Price. "There is now an endless list of convenience products in the kitchen, from microwaves to food processors to highly efficient coffee makers. The same parents are also looking for products that make the job of caring for a child easier and more comfortable.
"Coupled with that, there is now a higher percentage of first births of all births in the total population," he adds. "And just as you outfit a first home with lots of new furniture, when that first kid arrives you outfit a nursery in a very big way. All this makes for a burgeoning business."
According to Martin O'Connell, chief of the branch of fertility statistics for the U.S. Bureau of the Census, 41 percent of all births in this country in 1988 were first births, accounting for 1.6 million babies. Of that figure, 16 percent -- 260,000 babies -- were born to women ages 30 to 39. "During the baby boom of the 1950s and 1960s, only 25 percent of all births were firstborn," O'Connell notes.
While manufacturers of many other products are reporting sluggish sales from an ailing economy, Cathcart remains optimistic. "The last to feel the pinch in any recession are the children," he says. "Whether you're talking about toys for Christmas or items for the nursery, everybody loves to give to their kids."
Says Maura Bray, a spokeswoman for the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association (JPMA), "We don't see this industry hurting today. ... Because of the sheer numbers in firstborns, there is such an overwhelming need right now for juvenile products. And even if parents' incomes are diminished, part of whatever they do have is going toward the best that money can buy for baby." JPMA says 1989 sales for the U.S. juvenile product industry totaled $2.25 billion, a 16 percent gain over 1988. In 1970, the figure was $209 million.
Elementary school teacher Suzanne Aaronson vividly remembers the unbridled urge to mega-shop when her first child, Charlie, arrived nearly three years ago: "We had to have everything," she recalls. She's shopping a lot less for 10-month-old Maxwell.
"With Charlie, we got the deluxe backpack, an Italian stroller, all these developmentally correct toys," says Aaronson, 31, of Washington. "With the first baby you are compelled to buy lots of stuff, because you think everything matters tremendously, that everything makes a lasting impression -- what they do, what they wear.
"By the time Max rolled around, I bought nothing major; he's using all of his brother's things. I finally bought him a couple of outfits because I felt so guilty."
In the '50s, says Aaronson, "There was a more basic attitude in general toward children. If a child was crying, you knew he was wet, hungry or tired. Now we ask ourselves, 'Is he being challenged enough? Should I go get his Shake, Rattle and Roll toy?' We have more awareness now that a child is not just a blob, and with that comes a greater responsibility."
Nowhere is that sense of responsibility and subsequent confusion over choices more profound than in the area of product safety. The '70s and '80s saw a surge of more rigorous standards for children's products by the Consumer Product Safety Commission and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Infant car seats are mandated by law in every state, including for that first ride home from the hospital. And baby stores now have sections jammed with safety-related items.
"When I started in the business 14 years ago, there was one brand of cabinet latch," says Baby Products manager Grant. "Now there are toilet locks, refrigerator locks, medicine cabinet latches, stove knob covers, door guards. The old crisscross gate that caused a lot of injuries has been replaced by dozens of types of wood and plastic kinds."
This emphasis on prevention is an aspect of the commercial baby boom that one Bethesda mother of a 16-year-old and a 6-month-old says is a giant leap forward. Marsha Pinson, who also has two grade-school children, says that when her oldest child was born "the consumer was ignorant.
"Car seats were basically plastic molded buckets," remembers Pinson, 41. "There was no organic baby food; all the baby food had junk in it. I didn't know there was anything bad about salt and sugar. I didn't know about cholesterol. And now my three older children have high cholesterol. There wasn't all this research; who knew that black and white stimulates learning? Our kids had toys and mobiles in pastels and primaries."
She laughs when asked whether her toddler is getting off to a smarter start than she did.
"We, the Cuisinart generation, grew up on Gerber and some of us are fat and some of us are thin and some of us are screwed up and some of us aren't, and you know what? Our kids are going to be the same as we are."
Isadore Lerner, a Chicago pediatrician now in his seventies, says the good news he sees after 44 years of doctoring babies is the substantial decline in accident-related injuries: "With improvements in manufacturing, there are no loose eyes on toys, no sharp edges and less flammable clothing. These innovations have been learned the hard way."
And the bad news?
"Unfortunately, too many parents want to educate more than they should with all these gadgets and gimmicks," says Lerner. "It's become an obsession, when reading to kids is still probably the best activity of them all. When it comes down to it, all kids really want more than anything else is your time."
Before heading out to purchase any techno-wizardry for infants, check out the products' safety. Many have been certified with Juvenile Product Manufacturers Association (JPMA) safety seals that show the items have been rigorously tested for structural integrity.
Among suggestions on ways to play it safe, adapted from recommendations by JPMA and the Toy Manufacturers of America:
Buckle your child into a child safety seat every time you go for a ride in the car. Babies that weigh less than 20 pounds should be placed in rearward-facing seats. Infant and toddler seats always should be secured in the back seat. Do not use car seats made before 1981; they do not meet current safety standards.
Be sure crib slats are no more than 2 3/8 inches apart, or about the width of three fingers. Antique cribs or hand-me-downs made before 1974 probably don't meet these size regulations.
Make sure bumper pads fit around the entire crib, and trim from their attachment strings any material exceeding six inches to prevent choking or entanglement accidents. Once your child can stand up, remove bumpers so he doesn't use them to climb out of the crib.
Mobiles are objects to behold from afar. Attach them to the crib side-rail or wall-mount them out of reach. Remove the mobiles when your child can push up or sit up.
Check to see that the brakes of used strollers or carriages still work efficiently. Two wheel brakes provide an extra measure of safety.
Improperly used highchairs are one of the biggest culprits in infant safety. Highchairs should have a wide, stable base and two safety straps -- at the waist and crotch. Never use the sliding feeding tray in place of safety straps. Portable hook-on chairs should have a strong clamp and are only to be used on the sturdiest of tables.
Baby walkers are high on the list of infant hazards. Select a walker with a wide wheelbase that is less likely to tip over; only use walkers on smooth surfaces. Block the tops of stairwells with safety gates to prevent falls.
Rattles and teething toys should be in good condition with no small ends that can be broken off and swallowed. Pacifier shields should be large enough that they don't fit completely into a baby's mouth. Never put a pacifier on a string.
Be vigilant when selecting toys, avoiding sharp edges or small balls that can be swallowed. There are now Plexiglas tubes on the market called truncated right cylinders that approximate the size of the windpipe of a 3-year-old. Anything that fits completely into the tube is not a suitable toy for a baby.
Bath seats help stabilize babies while they are being washed, but are not meant to serve as a support if a parent is not there. Babies can drown in less than two inches of water.
For JPMA's videotape, "A Safe and Comfortable World for Baby" write: JPMA Videotape, 2 Greentree Centre, Suite 225, P.O. Box 955, Marlton, N.J. 08053. Cost: $15.