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‘90s FAMILY : A Bundle of Joy, a Load of Expenses : Books: Consumer advocates Alan and Denise Fields are at it again. But this time, they’re out to save parents big bucks on bringing up baby safely.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The consumer advocates dubbed “the Ralph Naders of the bridal industry” are trying to save people money again. The topic for Alan and Denise Fields this time? Babies.

Despite being cute, cuddly and basic in their demands (eating, sleeping and needing cleaning), babies are very expensive, as the authors found out when they had their son, Benjamin, in 1993.

How expensive? According to a study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, $6,000 to $13,000 is spent on a child until the age of 3, and that doesn’t include prenatal care or delivery costs. The Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that the infant sleepwear industry alone is a $1.1-billion business. Juvenile products such as cribs, car seats and toys account for another $3.5 billion. Add in diapers, food and all other clothing, and the baby business becomes a $24-billion industry.

Like most first-time parents, the Fieldses were looking for advice, but they couldn’t find anything that told them “what to look for or how to find a decent bargain without compromising safety or quality,” Denise Fields says. “That’s usually our criteria for writing a book. If there’s a book out there that addresses whatever our problems are, we never think we need to write another.”

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So they began a familiar process of research and interviews with industry experts and average parents. But while how to avoid getting ripped off as you plan the wedding of your dreams is the underlying theme of “Bridal Bargains,” the heart of “Baby Bargains” is safety.

The book is divided into chapters for each baby product category, such as bedding, clothing and toys. Each of these contains a “Safe & Sound” section highlighting shopping advice, safety tips (such as never use an electric blanket), and other valuable information (including how to contact the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s recall hot line). The Fieldses also scatter information boxes throughout the book to re-emphasize points because a bargain isn’t a bargain if it endangers your baby.

“There are places to save money but never at the cost of the baby’s safety,” says Nancy Owen, a baby-safety crusader and a source for “Baby Bargains.” “The consequences of that you can never overcome. The problem is defining for the parent where those savings are and where those savings should not be.”

The nursery has both potential safety hazards and money wasters. For example, most baby bedding is sold in sets that include pillows, bumper pads, dust ruffles and a quilt, but you don’t need all of those items.

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“The bumper is the only safety feature inside the crib,” says Owen, who recommends buying a thick, tall bumper.

“The dust ruffle is just decoration. You want a bumper that preferably ties top and bottom because if it just ties on top, babies will pull it off the bottom and wedge themselves between the mattress and side bars. Give up buying a fancy quilt but get a good bumper.”

Pillows, fluffy bedding and lambskin are wastes of money and dangerous. While doctors do not know what causes sudden infant death syndrome, they do know that putting babies in bedding that is too soft--particularly on their stomach--increases the danger.

Although the Fieldses love thrift shops and consignment stores, there are two items they advise against buying there: car seats and cribs. Car seats are a concern because there is no way of knowing if the seat has been in an accident. If a friend or a relative gives you an old car seat and you know it has never been in an accident, you can call the National Highway Safety Administration’s hot line at (800) 424-9393 to check whether or not it has been recalled.

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Crib manufacturers often make changes for safety reasons that parents are unaware of.

“The old-style cribs had spindles on the corners,” says Owen, who owns a nursery store in Austin, Tex., and is the mother of seven children. “Pajamas get caught in the finials (decorative spires), so they’ve done away with finials.”

As an extra precaution, the Fieldses suggest, choose cribs, highchairs, playpens, strollers and carriages that carry the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Assn. seal. Products with the seal have passed tests administered by an independent laboratory according to standards developed by consumer groups, the Product Safety Commission and industry members. The Fieldses point out that the Manufacturers Assn.'s standards are tougher than those of the Product Safety Commission.

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One hard judgment call is sleepwear. The Product Safety Commission requires all clothing labeled as infant sleepwear to be made of polyester, which is naturally flame resistant but tends to pull and look shabby after numerous washings. Because many parents use cotton clothing as sleepwear for its wearability, the Product Safety Commission is considering allowing some cotton clothing to be labeled sleepwear.

“Cotton that is form-fitting to their bodies is not any more of a hazard than flame-retardant sleepwear,” Denise Fields says. “So if it’s a big, loose T-shirt, it can catch fire much easier than a form-fitting pair of long johns.

“We actually did a test,” she says. “We took a piece of cotton fabric and we took one of (Benjamin’s polyester) sleepers that had been washed 100 times and we set fire to them. Cotton will continue to burn after you remove the flame, whereas the polyester flame-retardant clothing will not. You have to ask yourself: Do you want polyester melting or flaming cotton? So it’s an individual choice.”

If you do use flame-retardant sleepers, do not wash them in soap flakes. “Soap flakes actually add a chemical or chemically react so that they lose their flame retardancy, so you can actually light them with a match,” Denise Fields says.

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Instead, she advises washing baby clothing using detergent that doesn’t contain dyes or perfumes to avoid allergic reactions.

The Fieldses and other experts agree on some very important safety tips: Take your time, do research, talk to other parents, talk to retailers and think carefully before buying a product. Assume that everything your baby comes into contact with is a potential danger.

And “never, ever, ever leave a baby unattended, not for one second,” says Debbie Albert, a spokeswoman for the Juvenile Product Manufacturers Assn. “Please, tell people that. People go for one second to answer the phone and it’s all over.”


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