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Danger, Hazard, Warning!


I know a woman who had children much earlier than most of her peers. She prided herself on being the one to come to baby showers with useful gifts—a huge bag full of basic onesies and socks, for example—rather than fancy outfits a baby might wear once before it was outgrown.

I happily followed her lead, enjoying packing up a pile of brightly colored socks in such a way that it looked like yet another outfit until opened.

But having recently become a parent myself, I’ve become tempted to add a new little item to my baby-shower-giving repertoire.

A thread ripper.

No, it’s not that the fabric of the clothes is worth more than the clothes themselves.

It’s the warning labels. The ones sewn onto the product you’re about to put your baby into or on top of right, strategically located so you can’t, ever, not notice them.

I realize that it’s somewhat trite to make fun of the warning labels that our litigious culture has spawned—“Do not drive with sun shield in place,” “Caution: Hot coffee is hot”—but believe it or not, what happens on baby products reaches new heights of CYA hysteria.

It’s not so much that all the safety precautions are egregiously self-evident. Some are: Do not use the Exersaucer as a sled, or a boat.

Some aren’t. It is actually worth noting which bar on the Pack-n-Play you need to be sure to lock in place. It’s not bad to mention that an infant should be able to hold its head up before trying to sit upright propped in a Boppy nursing pillow.

Thing is, the presentation of even those warning labels with something reasonable to convey has little to do with communicating useful information and everything to do with the absolute terror of being faced with a lawsuit.

When I went to set up our new co-sleeper crib on what turned out to be the weekend before my daughter was born, I had figured that my biggest challenge was going to be maneuvering my pregnant belly and the crib in the inches-to-spare space I’d left in my bedroom for it. That was indeed tricky. But I found it nearly as difficult to navigate my way through the boldface type shouting at me on every page of the instruction booklet—about suffocation dangers and never walking out of the room for a second when my baby was asleep—to find the actual instructions. What I needed to do was, for all intents and purposes, in the fine print.

And then when I did get the thing together, there, right smack dab in the middle of the nice calm “fern” print was a 5-by- 7-inch black-and-white label with a summary of all those warnings. Ick. As a friend of mine wrote in commiseration, “It’s worse than a simple marring of beauty. . . . There you are singing a lullaby to your newborn, and you turn your head to see a yellow and red image of a baby suffocating to death. How reassuring. How nurturing. Sweet dreams!”

Happily, my label is just text, but still. I know another family who took apart their bed rails and reassembled them upside down so the warning labels about weren’t visible.

The winner on the absurd front is, hands down, the Boppy nursing pillow. A fine product, by the way, and nothing too silly in the content of its warnings, even. But the label starts off “Read before each use.”

OK, I know parents of newborns are a little scattered, but we’re not that far gone.

What is really troubling to me, though, are the warnings that effectively take sides on matters of child-rearing debate by coming down on the side that is less likely to get the manufacturers sued. My friends report that the aforementioned bed-rail warning included a statement that co-sleeping with kids under two was not considered safe by doctors.

This is, for the record, by no means a consensus. Plenty of doctors find it to be safe. In the vast, vast majority of times a kid has been harmed by co-sleeping, a parent was drunk or drugged in some way.

On the other hand, it is starting to come out that breastfed infants in nonsmoking households who are co-sleeping have vastly lower rates of SIDS. So there are some out there who would argue that not co-sleeping is dangerous.

I’m not making an argument either way here—there are so many factors that go into good parenting choices, and they cannot be understood or evaluated out of context. But it bothers me that liability lawyers, clearly no experts on what is best for babies, would wade into the fray.

Can you imagine what an intellectually honest disclosure/safety label on bed rails would look like? “Some studies have shown this, some studies have shown that. Such and such are risk factors. If your kid is under 2 consider x and y.” It would be paragraphs long, but boy would it be interesting.

Or, the libertarian in me says, perhaps a whole lot of products should carry the warning “Use of this product requires common sense, and inevitably carries some risk.”

Or, even better, they could be like my cousin envisions: “I wish my exersaucer had a reminder that the dishes need to be done and a warning about what happens if I wait until I’m hungry to start dinner.”

Now, that’s a warning label I could stand to “Read before each use.”

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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