Fear with a shot of vanity

Marketers capitalize on the insecurity and ignorance of new parents.

Published March 1, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

At a recent Gymboree class at San Francisco City College, a mom was bottle-feeding her son, who was wearing a helmet. "He's learning to walk," said the mother. "He could fall and really hurt himself. I think all babies who are learning to walk should wear helmets, don't you?"

If you don't agree with the helmet mom, how can you possibly reply? "No, I want my baby to crack open her skull." It's a trick question. You have to admit to what sounds like criminal neglect -- that you never thought about putting a helmet on your toddler. And even if you feel pretty OK about it, you still may experience a twinge of guilt or paranoia, faced as you are with a more "responsible" parent in possession of the most advanced safety equipment.

This guilt and paranoia are the fuel of a multibillion-dollar baby products industry that creates a full range of merchandise for every imaginable safety concern, as well as a full range of products for safety concerns that cannot be imagined. This vast array, sold everywhere parents can be found or followed, causes the beleaguered (or merely cynical) among us to ask: Is this industry assuaging our fear by providing us with useful products? Or is it creating terror for which its products appear to be the only answer?

From a selling standpoint it is a simple marketing equation: How susceptible you are to the natural fears of parenting is directly proportional to how much you are willing to spend. A Fisher-Price baby monitor for $19.95? Or $499.99 for the wireless BabyCam monitor with infrared lens that allows you to hear your baby and see him in the dark?

Safety standards change from decade to decade even when parents' instincts to protect and care for their children remain constant. And the baby products industry has exploded not just by marketing products that enhance and exaggerate our instincts but by responding with gusto to each safety proviso that comes down the pike. The result is that Americans are buying more baby stuff than ever before.

Since 1990 the number of babies born in the United States has declined 8 percent while spending on baby products (excluding diapers, clothes and food) has experienced annual double-digit growth. The Juvenile Products Marketing Association says the industry took in a record $4.86 billion in 1998, up 10 percent from 1997. That's a lot of helmets.

New parents today spend an average of $6,200 during their baby's first 12 months. How much of that is stuff they didn't really need or that is downright useless? According to consumer advocates Alan and Denise Fields, more than a third of the expenditure, or about $2,400, goes for unnecessary products. (The Fields are the authors of "Baby Bargains: Secrets to Saving 20 Percent to 50 Percent on Baby Furniture, Equipment, Clothes, Toys, Maternity Wear and More.")

"There is a lot of pressure on parents from baby retailers, from friends and family, to buy the very best for baby," says Alan Fields. "Some of it plays into age guilt, where instead of being a mom at 22, maybe you're a mom at 38. You've waited a long time for this and, by golly, you're going to do everything right. You also have more money at 38 than you did at 22. So sometimes there's a tendency for older parents to just overdo it."

But they are invited -- urged -- to do it by marketers who solemnly promise: There is no such thing as overdoing it; there is only doing it right. As soon as the pregnancy test is double-checked, parents are beckoned down a never-ending path paved with products, lured there by the marketing double whammy of safety and style.

Mothers are the main targets. Just look at the packaging of any babyproofing product box. Inevitably there is a smiling mom with an inquisitive toddler at her side who is reaching his hand toward the open flame of the stove. But does the mom look worried? No, she looks bemused, peaceful even. She doesn't have to worry about her little peanut pulling down a pot of boiling pasta water on his head. She spent $20 on a stove guard! She can relax and focus on cooking dinner!

So far, we've been lucky in my family, but each baby safety product brings up the question that burns within every new parent: Do I trust myself to supervise my children enough to keep them safe? It can drive you insane to think of all the ways that your children could be hurt once they start moving around the house by themselves. You can understand why some parents buy helmets, padding for all their furniture and locks for everything that opens. And the fact that they do brings up the question: Should I?

I think that from time to time it's good for my child to take a spill. Nothing serious, of course, but enough to remind him that the world is a place where actions have consequences. I don't mind explaining to him that if he doesn't pay attention to where the edge of his baby chair is, he might fall off and get bruised. Funny thing, it has only happened once, and ever since, each time we sit down to read Dr. Seuss' "I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew," he points out the edge of the chair to me.

So what do you really need for a baby? While almost everyone will buy a car seat and a crib, the rest of the stuff is really a judgment call. Many expectant parents ask their moms, or friends who have kids, what they should get. Some do research in books or on the Web. Pretty much wherever you go you will end up with a list of must-have items. And it's pretty clear that the people making these lists are neither pediatricians nor child development specialists but MBAs.

There are layette and new-parent checklists. There are lists for pregnant moms, with recommended products divided by trimester. All of them appear to have one goal in common: to capitalize on the ignorance and insecurity of new parents in order to sell as many products as possible.

A sample of new-parent lists from iBaby.com and baby.com is revealing. Each recommends buying about 80 separate items. Not only is there the obvious crib, changing table, highchair and stroller, there's also a cradle, bassinet, rocker, pacifier holder, sport stroller, bathtub thermometer, wipes warmer, food organizer, valance and wall border. And don't forget the WaterRoo infant carrier, a sort of pouch made out of netting that you can use to strap your kid to you while you're in the shower or pool. It is a necessity that costs only $25.

Until you see it for yourself, it is hard to imagine how many variations there are on the same products. As in the auto industry, cribs, car seats, strollers and highchairs are all about selling features. For $600 you can have a mahogany crib that converts into a daybed. How about a $200 Star Trek Docking Station changing table? The off-road Baby Jogger with alloy wheels is $500 (latté holder not included). The Japanese lightweight convertible carriage/stroller with removable basket, four-point reclining seat and adjustable handle? $300.

Since all car seats are required by federal law to meet certain minimum safety requirements, how do you decide? There is price, of course, but one must never, ever forget the designer snob factor. This is the emotional chaser to the safety issue, the nagging element of style. Do you like the tartan or the bear-and-balloons pattern? Will your friends think you're cheap if you don't buy Peg Perego highchairs and Maclaren strollers? Is it really possible to avoid BabyGap?

Take nursery sets and crib bedding. Babies could give a hoot what they are sleeping in as long as it's warm and dry; but parents care a lot about how babies' rooms are decorated, and they spend accordingly. You can get a complete Baby Guess bedding set for $400. And there are matching valances, garbage cans and wall borders. Or you could go really hog wild with a $5,000 Harley-Davidson nursery set. Invest that much in the stock market and you could buy the kid a real Harley when she turns 16.

Technology is another hot button, an enhancement to the baby products industry that straddles safety and style, with timesaving bonuses thrown in for good measure (and extra bucks). You can now buy heat-sensing spoons for about $4 that change color when the food on them is too hot. "Dip into grub with no worries -- the unique Heat Sensor spoon changes color when food is too hot for your baby's tender gums," reads the Web promo. "Supported by the Child Accident Prevention Trust."

From a geek standpoint, the spoon is kind of cool. But just because we can build it doesn't mean that we should buy it. Common sense tells you to taste the baby's food first, at no extra cost. But the heat-sensing spoon is there to remind you of your fallibility, or at least the fallibility of your second-rate lips. The floating duck bathtub thermometer ($2.99) exists for the same purpose. "Prevent accidental scalding," says the ad. "The Bath Pal thermometer indicates the ideal range for your baby's bath and measures the actual temperature in the water in 30 seconds." And what is wrong with feeling the water with your hand? Your hand, I guess.

It's enough to make you forget sometimes that the only thing that babies really need is love.

By Pia Hinckle

Pia Hinckle is a San Francisco writer and editor.

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