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Our babies, ourselves

Gwyneth Paltrow got one for baby Apple. Soon Matt Damon, Kate Hudson and even 60-something David Letterman were carting their wee ones around in Bugaboos.

It wasn't long before regular moms were shelling out $800. Who would have thought they'd spend so much on a baby stroller?

In Parenting, Inc., Pamela Paul explains how the $1.7-trillion-a-year baby industry pulled off that marketing trick and thousands like it. She meticulously examines the big business associated with parenting, from Baby Einstein videos and sign language classes to the Netto Collection of designer bedrooms for children.

Paul's research included interviews with educators, psychologists, parents and a variety of "mom industry" professionals. She discerns between essential items and services and those that are superfluous or potentially harmful.

Her verdict?

Sippy cup: priceless.

Butt Naked Baby Essentials Oatmeal Bath: nope.

Paul, author of The Starter Marriage and a contributor to Time magazine, has written on topics ranging from helping babies sleep to eco-housekeeping.

Parenting, Inc. is not a quick read or a how-to guide. It's a meticulously researched piece of cultural criticism. The recommendations are there, but you have to hunt for them.

It's worth it.

Playing off fear

Connecting with Paul is relatively easy, particularly when she recalls her personal experiences with lactation consultants and the large pile of gifts at her daughter Beatrice's birthday party — fun to open, but more than a 1-year-old really needed.

According to Parenting, Inc., perception and fear drive much of the spending by new parents. They fear their child will fall behind if she doesn't attend Gymboree's "thoughtful observer class" for 0- to 6-month-olds. They want her to have more than they had growing up.

"Parents will do anything to provide for their children," Jan Studin, publisher of Parents magazine, told Paul. "Marketers now know that this category has tremendous opportunity for growth."

Some parents freely admitted that perceived status plays a role in their spending choices. "There are so many yuppie families like us who want to project their own image onto their children," said one. "They want their babies to be sophisticated."

They also want their babies to be smart. Baby Einstein and similar video and DVD programs are heavily marketed to parents of infants and young children. The bad news is that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no TV at all before kids turn 2. Paul notes that only 6 percent of parents are aware of this, despite the fact that the warning was established in 1999.

Though no such warnings have been established for the practice of supplementing baby formula with exotic extras like fatty acids derived from fungi, algae or fish oil, Paul finds little research to support that practice either. Purchasing "brainy formula" does make a significant dent in the piggybank, however, costing 15 to 30 percent more than regular formula and 100 percent more than breast milk.

Help — for a price

For a fee, consultants are available for everything from birthday party planning to potty training. Paul even located a group called the Texas Lice Squad, who can be hired to delouse a child.

New parents often live far from baby-experienced grandparents, and some are hesitant to ask friends for advice.

"I disliked asking for help from others because it meant that I couldn't handle it," said one mother, who hired a parenting coach instead.

Paul, a mother of two youngsters herself, is sympathetic to the challenges new parents face. She hired two lactation consultants for help getting her second child to breastfeed. The first consultant said her child had reflux and convinced her to completely overhaul her diet. The second lactation consultant dismissed the diagnosis — as did the baby's pediatrician — and suggested a new "strong arm latch maneuver," which helped.

"Have we, in a generation, completely lost sight of Dr. Spock's reassurance to relax, to realize that we can do it — to trust that we know more than we think?" she writes.

Parenting, Inc. just might reassure some parents that a hand-me-down Graco stroller works just fine.

Shary Lyssy Marshall is a former elementary school teacher and administrator. She lives and writes in the Tampa Bay area.

Parenting, Inc.

How We Are
Sold on $800 Strollers, Fetal Education, Baby Sign Language, Sleeping Coaches, Toddler Couture, and Diaper Wipe Warmers — and What It Means for Our Children

By Pamela Paul

Henry Holt and Co., 320 pages, $25

Our babies, ourselves 04/26/08 [Last modified: Saturday, April 26, 2008 7:31pm]
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