Babyproofing Your Way to Lunacy

I know baby safety is critical. I do. On my son's first night at home, I curled up on the floor next to the bassinet, waking up every ten minutes to check on him. But I also know that in other places, mothers live in mud huts and use common sense and their maternal instinct.
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I'm all for baby safety. Really, I am. But looking back now that my children are toddlers, I often wonder how I managed to keep them alive this long. After all, I'd read enough books about Getting Ready for Baby to know that the baby's room we so lovingly created in our home was, more than likely, a death trap.

"Huh!" I thought, reading that sentence and then peeking into our baby's room, which was bare except for thick wall-to-wall carpeting and a small mural of a happy monkey. (I know what you're thinking -- and yes, I did check to make sure the mural of the monkey was not actually a real monkey, Velcro-ed to the wall, waiting to pounce on the baby.)

Yet according to experts, unless you have invested in some kind of anti-gravity machine that permanently keeps your baby suspended in mid-air, the first thing that baby touches -- such as that floppy-eared plush bunny with the sad smile -- is likely to burst into flames and start spraying the room with poison darts.

A couple of months before Finn was born, I expressed these safety concerns to my wife. That turned out not to be super helpful, since Liz was also worried about the baby. I learned that it's an objective truth that wives do not want their husband wondering aloud if the baby is going to be safe living among what he calls "a series of booby traps" around their house. (I also learned it's even less helpful for a husband to wonder that aloud, then shrug and open a bag of Doritos.)

In order to prove to my wife that I was indeed a husband who could keep our baby safe against seemingly impossible odds, I decided to set up Finn's stroller for him a few weeks before the due date. I assembled it in our little NYC apartment, and I put a sweet little Corduroy teddy bear that I'd bought that afternoon in it.

When Liz opened the door after work that evening, she saw me gently pushing the bear toward her, a huge smile on my face. She stopped in the doorway, put her hand to her chest, and her eyes started to well up at the scene.

"Now," I said, pausing and leaning over the stroller, "Just imagine us with our little Finn, going for..."

That's as far as I got, because right then, the front wheel popped off the stroller. I jerked forward and suddenly found myself rolling over the stroller and of course, I didn't buckle in the stupid bear so he flew right out and as my arms flailed and the stroller flipped up in the air and we both fell toward Corduroy, all I could think about was how much I wished I hadn't put that little sticker on the bear's vest that said "Hi! My name is Finn! My daddy will always keep me safe!"

So Liz went to bed that night with that image in her head.

The ironic thing is that that stroller had the highest safety rating around. But that's sort of the problem, isn't it? The higher the safety rating, the more of a nightmare it is to set up, and I must have put that front wheel on wrong.

As parents, we spent literally months on research to make sure we buy the safest products we can find. For our first bassinet, Liz and I bought a co-sleeper, which is basically a bassinet with three walls that attaches to your bed. (Figuring all parents bought the same stuff, I called my friend Charlie to ask him about his co-sleeper. He paused, confused. "You mean, like, my wife?")

With no one to advise me on setting this thing up, I dumped out the pieces on the floor. And there were a lot of pieces.

Back in college, I learned that there are two rules about setting up furniture by yourself: Rule One: Never start after 11 p.m. Rule Two: Never drink. (I actually learned both these lessons simultaneously, when I woke the next morning on the floor smelling like particle board, with a set of inside-out Ikea chest of drawers lying face down next to me as if it had been shot.)

Now, of course, the stakes for furniture set-up were so much higher because my baby's life apparently depended on it. So I cleared my schedule on a Saturday morning, poured a large cup of coffee and got to work.

As I'm assembling this thing, I realized that not only is it a nightmare to set up, but that there seems to be a fine line between creating something a baby can't manipulate (for safety reasons) and creating something I, an adult, can't manipulate.

For example: I understand they don't want the child to be able to press the level that collapses the bassinet. That makes sense. But even I couldn't squeeze the lever. What kind of babies are they testing this on that can even come close to squeezing this lever? You'd have to have some kind of super baby that can crush rocks into gravel with its bare fist. Does that describe your baby? Because when my baby was spending time in there, I'm not even sure he knew he had hands.

So again: Who is this baby that they envision sleeping in here? I'm telling you right now, you could put a full-grown silverback gorilla in that bassinet and promise him, like, a thousand bananas if he can pull the mattress liner away from the frame. There's no way he's getting anywhere close.

Yet that doesn't stop the manufacturer from wallpapering the thing with warning labels to guard you against allowing your baby to remove the liner from the frame. I get it -- we live in America, the most litigious society in history. But the only warning you need on this particular product is one of those big red circles with a slash through it, and inside it have a picture of a baby dropping the bassinet into a volcano, because that's the only way that liner is coming off.

At least on the bassinet the warning label was below the little mattress, where the baby couldn't see it. You ever put together one of those little Fisher Price bouncy seats? The rainforest one, where the animals all face outwards on this nice arch that goes over the seat? It looks great from where the parent is standing -- why wouldn't it? The baby is surrounded by all these monkeys and giraffes and whatever. We parents imagine our baby is in a rainforest, talking to the friendly toucans and tree frogs. (And like that's safe? Your baby alone in a rainforest?)

But that idyllic picture is not what your baby sees. Your baby sees the giant sticker affixed to the back of the arch that reads "WARNING: MAY CAUSE DEATH TO CHILD IF USED IMPROPERLY." And my poor kid is reading that, then looking up at me scratching my head and mumbling about how this set up doesn't look right, then looking back at the label. If I had to guess, I'd say that's probably why Finn was never smiling in those photos.

I know baby safety is critical. I do. On my son's first night at home I curled up on the floor next to the bassinet, waking up every ten minutes to check on him.

But I also know that in places like Nepal, where I used to live, mothers live in mud huts in the mountains, where they've never seen a light bulb, that they do wonderfully well with their babies, given their limitations. They are careful and loving and use common sense and their maternal instinct. I guess that wouldn't sell a whole lot of baby books, that approach. But it's pretty much what we did with our second baby, Lucy. We took time to breathe. We didn't read any books. She's now 1 ½ years old and for the past year she's been throwing herself off of every piece of furniture she can find.

And lo and behold: She's just fine.