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Sorting through babies' material world

The "Magic Reward" potty/step stool was bad enough. But my personal gross-out meter didn't top out until the encounter with the high-chair splat shield.

It was all in the line of duty as one of the judges at the recent Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association trade show, a bellwether for the babies of '98. Hopeful manufacturers submitted 120 new products, and judges included jaded buyers for retail stores, publishers of catalogs and trade publications, and members of the press.

Must-haves mingled with don't-wants. There were the obvious mom-oriented products (foam noodles scaled down to bottle-holder size), dad-friendly items (a neat pirate ship toy box) and grandma-exclusive gadgets (who else would buy a plush nap pad with attached fish pillow for $47.95?).

The manufacturers association bunched the judges into teams and handed out bottles of water. I was paired with the publisher of an exclusive children's specialties catalog and a buyer for a chain of high-end Northeastern boutiques.

"Too many straps, and too much space between them," announced the catalog publisher as she pulled apart the Terry Travel towel bag. "Is this a good idea?" said the grimacing boutique buyer, rapping his knuckle on a mirror, which perplexingly served as the top of a changing table. (It was meant to convert to a dresser with mirror, we learned.)

My only point of contention was our team's approval of a curbside safety sign that retailed for $10. It was simply a yellow corrugated standup about a foot high that proclaimed, "Caution, kids at play." I can paint a big box with the same message for a lot less.

Trends included triangular furniture that fits in corners, scaled-down foam swim noodles twisted into all sorts of toys and accessories, and numerous versions of three-sided bedside sleepers that piggyback onto adult mattresses to keep newborns close to mom.

Among the 10 winners was Baby Trend's Armsreach Bedside Co-Sleeper (about $189), which converts to a portable play yard and changing table when baby grows older. The noodle thing that won was Summer Infant Products' nifty Bath Mobile. It has suction cups on both ends to attach to the tub, and several tub toys on it. It sells for up to $20.

My favorite among the winners? Munchkin Inc.'s Teething Blanket, a cotton coverlet sized for an infant carrier or stroller with teethers sewn into three corners and a pacifier attached to the fourth. The weight of the teethers keeps it from blowing away. It sells for a reasonable $4.99.

Other winners were Ready Freddie by Camp Kazoo, a 99-minute barking timer worn like a watch ($14.99); Century's Next Step car seat, which transitions all the way from 20-pound infants to 65-pound elementary students (about $100); and Gerry's Amuse & Cruise activity center/wagon, with a lift-out developmental activity center nestled into an indoor-outdoor play wagon ($100).

Gold Bug's Animal Heads Up-Strap Cover combo is just so darn cute, with a soft toy and animal-head look-alikes on car seat strap guides. At $17.99, it's a great gift item. The Kelty Kangaroo Infant Carrier ($69.99) puts the baby's weight on the parents' hips and waist, not the shoulders or neck.

Maya Group's 1-2-3 Discovery Lane is pricey at $49.95, but its clever three-stage concept will see a baby into toddlerhood. The modular panels have sewn-in toys and can be arranged in a circle on the floor for babies, as a winding "path" for crawlers, and a soft hide-'em tent for toddlers.

As for the losers, do you really want a talking car seat that advises, "Warning, child escaping!"