What's more "hands-on" than the care of a newborn? And how many new parents today know what's in store?

Hardly anyone, of course. Most of us don't grow up in extended families any more. For many young parents, their own baby is the first newborn they've ever held, much less diapered, bathed and fed.

In a world where most of our roads are already paved for us, here's parenthood, the path not taken. But bravely we set out: Surely we can do it -- everyone before us has. So, in this high-tech age, we're always surprised to find that the road is rockier than we thought it would be, that traveling that path makes us tired and even grouchy. How on earth do you hold this floppy creature? And should he be eating every hour and a half? How do I get him to quit crying? I'm so tired ... I feel like crying. Who's the adult here, anyway?

Along comes "Baby Basics," a reassuring videocassette that follows four young first-time families as they take their infants home from the hospital. It's comforting to hear a bearded dad admit that his newborn daughter doesn't resemble the rosy-cheeked tot on the Pampers box. He wouldn't go so far as to call her ugly (after all, he must be thinking, she might see this tape some day), he said, but, well, covered with mucus as she was ... (This same candid dad also admits somewhat wryly that in the crush of visiting relatives, he found himself "developing a close relationship with Fred the diaper delivery man.")

"Baby Basics" truly proves that a picture is worth a thousand words. Watching a young parent clean a baby's bottom or shampoo a newborn's hair is a lot easier than reading about it. Seeing a skin condition that is considered normal may save a frantic call to the pediatrician. A young mother brushes cradle cap out of her son's scalp with a soft toothbrush and it doesn't look so difficult. A nursing mom uses the "football hold" that she and the baby prefer -- the videos shows you how.

Admittedly, some of the topics pinpointed in the index get off lightly: Trimming Fingernails ("Trim your baby's fingernails while he's sleep," suggests the narrator as parental hands carefully clip). That's it. Others, such as positions for breastfeeding, get more attention, as they should. "Baby Basics" answers a lot of questions for first-time parents.

I do have a couple of quibbles with "Baby Basics": The tape points out that babies usually thrash about to keep blankets away from their faces, but could have noted that a baby on her tummy has less chance of getting into trouble with her clothing or covering, and besides, many prefer that position.

In addition, contrary to the procedure shown on the tape, parents who are diapering babies would do well to place the child so that her head and hands are far from the diaper pins, salve and other equipment. Even a very young baby has a good grip reflex and could inadvertently grasp and wield a pin. Older babies may be just plain curious.

Part of the psychic stress of caring for an infant comes from the constant vigilence against accidents. A moment's inattention and the baby has rolled into trouble or even off the table. So why take a chance?

"Baby Basics" was developed through the participation of the Nurses' Association of the American Colllege of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, with three physicians -- one who was first a registered nurse -- as consultants. Like the reassuring neonatal nurse who helped the new mother with her baby in the hospital, this tape both answers questions and bolsters your self-confidence.

And while it may be easier to turn to a page in a book to find help, the producers of "Baby Basics" have included a booklet in which you can enter the figure from your VCR footage counter next to the topic you need to consult. Perhaps not quite as fast as the printed medium -- after all, this is a 110-minute tape -- but fine for the VCR-literate. Do it before the baby arrives.

The pamphlet includes several pages of additional information plus growth charts and immunization schedules. As for the booklet's drawings illustrating exercises to speed Mom's physical recovery, why not rent a tape?

BABY BASICS, $39.95 plus $3 shipping. Call 1-800-526-4773 to order (Number NA2000) or write Karol Video, 22 Riverview Dr., Wayne, N.J. 07470.