Being a parent is fraught with emotion - pride, joy, irritation, disgust - but for me, anyway, there's one that can be more overwhelming than the rest: terror. The thrill of "Oh, wow, she took her first steps" becomes the agony of "Oh, my god, I never realized how deadly the corner of that table is!" Then comes terror's quieter but just as brutal cousin, guilt: "How could I subject my kids to the dangers of mid-century modern furniture? WHAT KIND OF MONSTER AM I?" Don't even get me started on the nerve-jangling, gut-wrenching ordeal that is a trip to the playground.
But wait a minute. As Lenore Skenazy of Free-Range Kids points out, parents haven't always trembled on the brink of nervous collapse. Toddlers have been falling down and bumping their heads for millennia. We're lucky to have things like car seats and bike helmets to protect our kids, but not so lucky to live in an age when parental terror is so lucrative. From the litany of ratings-boosting horrors on TV news to the dubious fringes of the safety-device industry, there's money to be made in scaring us out of our wits. A parent in a constant state of panic is a lot more likely to reach for the wallet first and ask questions later.
I like the Free Range Kids approach but I have to admit, most of the time I'm just as frightened for my kids as anybody. So this weekly column will try to look rationally at current news and trends to figure out if there's really anything for us (OK, me) to be scared of. Join me each week as I marshal my natural skepticism against the forces of conditioned terror. We'll see who wins.
The first story I'm looking at is almost too tragic to think about: "Deaths prompt CPSC, FDA warning on infant sleep positioners". But I think it's an instructive example of the law of unintended consequences, with a side order of good old-fashioned capitalism. The consensus in the pediatric establishment says that it's safer for newborns to sleep on their backs. I don't doubt that's true. But we all know how hard it is to get a newborn to do anything you want them to do, right?
In steps the child-safety industry with the "sleep positioner". Designs vary, but they usually consist of a couple of foam rolls or wedges on a mat or cushion. The idea is, the positioner will keep the sleeping baby from rolling over onto his or her stomach. But yesterday, the Consumer Product Safety Commission warned consumers against using the devices. "Over the past 13 years, CPSC and the FDA have received 12 reports of infants between the ages of 1 month and 4 four months who died when they suffocated in sleep positioners or became trapped and suffocated between a sleep positioner and the side of a crib or bassinet," the CPSC announcement says. "Using a positioner to hold an infant on his or her back or side for sleep is dangerous and unnecessary." The CPSC also says that no sleep-positioner has ever been found to help prevent SIDS or any other life-threatening harm.
So we have a case of parents, with nothing but the best of intentions, buying a product that they think will help them do the right thing. (I've used sleep positioners a few times with my kids, too.) And certainly, the manufacturers weren't trying to hurt babies. They just saw a market and tried to give that market what it wanted. My only point is, the combination of money and fear produces a toxic haze that makes it hard to see just what the safest options are. No wonder we're all so terrified.
I promise future columns won't be quite so heavy. This story just happened to be in the news today. Whether you're as scared and confused as I am, or you come to offer soothing words of parental wisdom, let me know what you think about sleep positioners, free-range parenting, or the child safety-industrial complex.