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Babyproofed or paranoid?

On a recent rainy Friday, Alyzza Oser, 33, a real estate broker and lawyer with a cheerful, easy manner, was waiting for the babyproofer to arrive at her spacious duplex apartment. Samantha, her pretty 9-month-old daughter, who has active little hands and a raging curiosity, was sitting in the living room, playing with her mother's briefcase.

"Samantha," Oser said, "that isn't a toy. How about a stuffed kangaroo instead?"

A kangaroo was fine by Samantha, who seemed up to playing with anything. And boy, did she have lots of options. Oser and her husband, Ira, a business consultant, had just moved their offices into their home, and were getting ready to move to Westchester County, N.Y.

The apartment was an extravagant field of diversions. There were stairs waiting to be fallen down; cross-country skis and glass shelves, and a halogen lamp, all just begging to be toppled over; the cat's litter box ripe for digging; pointy things ready for their sharpness tests. Best of all, every single thing in the apartment was edible.

"There are things I know shouldn't be in here," Oser said with a helplessness shared by first-time parents who are told their homes are four-walled booby traps. Even as home-accident rates for children are falling in America, many parents remain in a quandary about how many precautions to take _ and at what price.

Had she followed the advice of brochures and child-rearing magazines, she would have toured her home on her hands and knees for a child's-eye view. Oser (who flung herself off balance beams as a child gymnast) didn't want to succumb to paranoia. Still, she wanted to do something, even if it was just installing guards at the spiral staircase. "I don't think there is such a thing as total babyproofing," she said.

She would only have to open one of many mail-order catalogs for a dizzying carousel of options: anti-bacterial high chairs to zap E. coli, salmonella and other germs; heat-sensitive spoons that turn white when food is too hot; diaper-changing tables with seat belts; shock-absorbers for coffee-table edges; safety holders for hair-curling irons and nets that seal children into their cribs _ everything short of bubble-wrap overalls from Baby Gap.

To negotiate this potential minefield, Oser turned to a babyproofer _ someone with a little expertise and a lot of common sense. "I have a sense of what else needs to be done," she said, "but I don't have time to do it." Help arrived in the form of Frank Wright, a man in a flannel shirt and with such a comforting demeanor that he reminded her of her father.

Wright, 52, started his business, Child Proofers, in 1992, after he was laid off as a banking executive.

After accepting a cup of coffee, Wright fixed the comforting look of a crisis intervention counselor on Oser. "Tell me what concerns you most," he said.

She handed Samantha to Dorothy Davenport, her nanny, and led Wright to the spiral stairs. He recommended plexiglass guards, top and bottom, but nothing more elaborate, although he could have. (He once did a stair job in Greenwich, Conn., that cost $8,500.)

The stairs were just the beginning. He made warning noises about a tall house plant, even though it wasn't the dreaded poisonous ficus. "Dirt isn't recommended for growing children," Wright said.

Nor were the contents of the cat's litter box under the stairs, for which he recommended a 3-foot-tall plexiglass barricade (the cat quickly gets used to jumping, he said).

The contents of a bedside table in the master bedroom were similarly suspect, so he suggested latches. Oser agreed but rejected latches for the dresser drawers.

"We'll let Samantha play with our socks," she said.

The crib slats in the nursery were close enough together to pass muster, but since the room also serves as an office, there were more hazards to bust. Wright didn't push for casing for the computer wires, though he suggested taping them to the floor or putting them out of reach. But he did persuade Oser to put covers on the electrical outlets.

For Oser's concern about little fingers getting smashed in the doors, he recommended a wedge from the hardware store, nothing more. In the bathrooms, where he recommended that she buy a spigot cover to prevent head banging, a scald guard and a shower caddy to keep delicious-looking shampoo out of reach, he made a successful case for installing a latch on the toilet. "Kids love water," is all he had to say.

No stove knob covers, cooktop fences, oven latches or even a microwave radiation leak detector seemed necessary for the closet-size kitchen, though he did make a case for moving the cat's food dish off the floor and latching the lower cabinets. A refrigerator latch was also a possibility.

Oser looked overwhelmed. "This apartment never looked so big before," she said.

But keeping things latched, Wright cheerfully explained, would give her peace of mind. "And it eliminates your having to say no all the time," he said.

In the chamber of horrors commonly known as the living room, he suggested a few more latches for the cabinets ("China plates don't bounce," he said). Oser was worried that Samantha might have a smashing encounter with the glass door on the stereo cabinet, so Wright suggested a lock. The back garden also needed stair guards and barriers around the shrubbery to prevent impromptu foraging expeditions.

In terms of accidents, America is becoming a safer place for children, according to the National Safe Kids Campaign, an educational group in Washington. The number of children who die each year from accidents in and around the home fell about 15 percent, to 2,700, from 1987 to 1994, the last year for which figures are available.

Sarah Mahoney, an executive editor of Parents magazine, says she hears plenty of parents say that they survived childhood with none of these precautions.

"People may think that lead in the drinking water isn't a real issue, either," said Mahoney, who once found her 2-year-son swinging overhead from the living-room curtains.

But while nobody believes that safety awareness is a bad thing, some experts question the babyproofing boom.

"I wonder if babyproofing is a result of the guilt we feel for not being able to watch our children ourselves," said Dr. Jonathan Bloomberg, a child psychiatrist in Chicago who has five boys, 4 months to 9 years old. Although he makes his sons wear bicycle helmets and keeps poisonous substances out of reach, there are no socket covers, stairguards or safety latches in his home.

"Childproofing the entire house as if it were an enormous configuration of dangers is a way to produce children who are nervous about the world," he said.

Looking ahead

Parents who want to take a look at child safety features and get ideas for their own homes can visit a home highlighting child safety. It opens April 5 in Hillsborough County.

The house is the centerpiece of this year's Parade of Homes sponsored by the Builders Association of Greater Tampa. It is at VillaRosa, a development on Lutz-Lake Fern Road in northern Hillsborough.

Watch for a preview of the child safety house Saturday in the Home & Garden section.