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
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