1. Safety First: Affluent D.C. Parents and the Baby-Safety-Industrial Complex

    By Kathryn Masterson 

    Photos by Darrow Montgomery

    Tammy Loverdos enters a three-story Capitol Hill rowhouse with a clipboard, a box of demonstration latches, and a folder stocked with safety pamphlets. She’s been called, as she is between five and 10 times a week around the region, to give an expert’s eye to the potential dangers that could meet this home’s youngest resident.

    Loverdos, who works for Safe Start Baby, the biggest professional baby-proofing company in the area, goes methodically from room to room, pointing out places where an infant could get into trouble. She then offers solutions, suggesting specific products or methods to reduce risks.

    Those solutions range from the obvious—gates at the top and bottom of the stairs, locks on kitchen cabinets and on drawers where electronics are stored—to the less so. A coat rack by the front door could tip if tugged on, giving a nasty bump. Should it be wired to a wall? The video baby monitor attached to the crib could strangle a baby caught in its cord. Placing it on a shelf on the wall would keep it out of reach.

    For Loverdos, who worked for an international development nonprofit before becoming a child safety assessor, the Capital Hill job was a relatively simple one. Though the house had three floors, it was completely free of clutter. The electronics of modern life were already stored away, with no laptops or jumbled piles of phone chargers on counters. There were no towers of books, piles of junk on tables, or scatterings of spare change.

    And door latches were already in place. Loverdos recognized them as the same kind she was carrying in her box. The house’s previous occupants had already baby-proofed the house—most likely through Safe Start Baby. A baby-proofer’s job involves a lot of anticipation, but Loverdos says this is the first time she’s assessed a house her company probably had already worked on.

    It may not be the last. Professional child-proofing services, which come to your house to identify hazards, then install the products to mitigate them, are growing rapidly in the Washington area. They offer a potent mix of convenience, protection, and reassurance that resonates with this region’s educated, busy parents. “Do you really want to spent your weekend trying to invent a way to fit your gate around a wobbly staircase?” Loverdos says.

    And such services also offer the stamp of an expert, the gold standard in the culture of D.C.’s Type A parenting circles. Parents look to experts to tell us how to get our baby to sleep longer, eat more, and listen to us. We’re a culture of sleep coaches, happy-baby consultants, and baby planners who will tell you what can’t-miss items you need on your baby registry. In the Washington area’s affluent neighborhoods—like Potomac, American University Park, and Eastern Market—parents are raising kids who, by dint of being born to well-off families in the U.S. early in the 21st century, face almost none of the risks that life would pose for children growing up in other places (even in other parts of the city) or times. But just because you don’t have to worry about whether your kid will be malnourished or lack shelter doesn’t mean an end to the anxieties of child-rearing. Professional baby-proofing, like so many baby products these days, markets itself to parents looking for an even stronger sense of security. The parents considering professional baby-proofers know childproofing is something good parents do. So they’d prefer to outsource it to the experts.

    Cost is not much of a deterrent. There are plenty of people around the region who can afford the $1,000 and up to put in gates, latches, and stove guards for them. Safe Start Baby, which goes into about 20 houses a week, has installations booked out three weeks to a month. A typical assessment can take one to two hours, and a typical job four to six. A smaller service in Maryland child-proofs 150 houses a year.

    “It’s an easy sell for us,” Michele Spahr, the owner of Safe Start Baby, says. Then she hedges, adding she doesn’t like to use the word “sell.”

    ***

    If you have a small child who’s becoming mobile, you only have to spend a few hours with them to realize how much they can get into. There’s little debate that rearranging your house and putting up some barriers to keep little people safe is a necessity. The question that faces parents today is: Do you cover outlets and put in gates yourself, or would you rather have a full-service option?

    Spahr says her clients’ lives are already so overscheduled that they’re not interested in wasting their limited free time trying to figure out what safety products they need, going to the store to find those products, and spending hours putting it all up.

    “Some don’t have the skills. Others don’t want to spent their weekends installing baby-proofing,” she says. Enter Safe Start Baby, which provides the initial $100 assessment (that $100 is credited back if a customer has the service baby-proof their home, with a total bill of around $700 to $1,000), already knows what products work the best, and can professionally install them.

    Getting the child-proofers to talk about their business was easy. Finding someone who’d used the service and wanted to discuss why was a little more difficult. One friend who spent $900 with Safe Start Baby tracks with the services’ client profile: busy parents who aren’t handy and would rather do something else with their free time, anticipating several frustrating weekends if they did the work themselves. Not a huge worrier, she saw it as another house project that needed to be done—and could be by professionals.

    They skipped some of the suggestions that seemed like overkill and did some on their own, like installing magnetic cabinet locks. But (in what would be a great endorsement for the services) they regretted not having the pros do all of it when the lock adhesive they installed started coming off.

    Just as valuable as the carpentry skills is the information baby-proofers provide, Spahr says. Not every fix requires a product; many times, professional baby-proofers will point out risks and make suggestions that don’t cost anything, like getting down on the floor to your child’s level and removing small or breakable objects you see or tying up cords. Parents are also free to chose which modifications they want and which they’d rather leave as-is.

    “Most parents are not going to do every single little thing in the house,” Spahr says. “If we can make them aware of potential hazards, then we’ve done our part.”

    Spahr wasn’t planning to make child-proofing a full-time job when she started out nine years ago. She was running a daycare and raising three kids of her own (now four) when she began doing some child-proofing on the side. She found she had a knack for both the installations and being able to anticipate what her kids and the ones at her daycare could get into.

    “I learned so much from watching them,” she says. “They’re much smarter and more resourceful than we give them credit for. They’ll figure it out.”

    Word of her services spread on local message board DC Urban Moms, and the business took off so quickly it became her full-time job. She now has 11 employees, including three installers.

    Professional child-proofer is also a second—or third—career for Bill Brooner, who owns Baby Proofing Montgomery in Maryland. He was doing home inspections after retiring from a career in international development and kept noticing problems related to child safety. The pieces clicked when he was visiting his daughter in Illinois and someone came to install baby gates at the house. “This is a no-brainer,” Brooner thought. He added baby-proofing to the services he offered, and it became so popular he ceased the home inspections. A one-man shop, he goes into about 150 homes a year, where the job can range from several hundred dollars to $6,000. The average is about $1,000 to $2,000, he estimates, and the business has grossed six figures in the last several years.

    Brooner, too, mostly works with two-income households where people don’t have much time or handyman skills. He also works in high-end homes where parents are concerned about damaging features like banisters with gates and furniture straps. Hiring a professional reassures them that they won’t have unnecessary holes in their walls or wooden staircases.

    Still, most parents out there do their own child-proofing, and Brooner says they’re his biggest competition.

    In our house, I took the middle ground. Neither my husband nor I is handy, but my father is. He and I went to Home Depot when he was in town for a visit, and he installed the gates and cabinet latches for our 1-year-old daughter. On a later visit, he bolted our bookcases to the wall.

    But I’ve hired professionals, too. After being scared by news stories of children crushed by TVs, I replaced our old television and paid a Best Buy installer to mount the new flat-screen on the wall. We were already planning to replace the TV, but after reading those stories, it was impossible to look at it in the corner of our living room and not think about the possibility of it falling on my child when she started to walk, no matter how unlikely it was that would actually happen. I went to Best Buy, and like the professional child-proofers promise, it was easier to take care of it all—TV, wall mount, delivery and installation—at once. (The extras wound up costing more than the TV did.)

    As a concept, the professional child-proofer is a relatively recent phenomenon. The International Association for Child Safety was started in 1997, and has 150 members, 130 of whom are professional baby-proofers, says its executive director Colleen Driscoll, who is based in Maryland. “The average home is not designed, constructed, or furnished with the safety needs of a child in mind,” the association’s website says. “Sadly, many parents are unaware of the potential dangers in their home until an injury occurs. An experienced childproofer can provide valuable peace of mind for parents, grandparents, and caregivers by identifying safety hazards in and around the home, recommending specific safety solutions and providing professional installation services.”

    The group offers certification for its members, and held its annual meeting last weekend in Fort Lauderdale to trade information and study up on the latest safety products.

    With a business so new—and because the market for safety products for children has exploded in recent years as the baby market has expanded in general—baby-proofers sometimes hear criticism from people who point out they didn’t have all these safety products back in their day, and they turned out just fine.

    “The reality is, they’re looking at things from their perspective, and they need to take a bigger look,” Driscoll says. Homes are bigger. There are things like the flat-screen TVs that weren’t there before. “We’re not trying to shelter them. Your children are not going to understand why they can’t climb on that dresser.”

    ***

    Like any parenting theory, of course, the focus on safety has caused its own backlash. This one is led by author Lenore Skenazy, a New York mother of two teens who wrote the book Free Range Kids and blogs under the same name. (The blog’s motto: “fighting the belief that our kids are in constant danger.”) On her blog, she takes on what she calls the “baby-proofing industrial complex” and the influx of safety products marketed to parents.

    We’ve become a country of safety junkies, Skenazy says, a nation of anxious parents who have turned asking, “What if?” into a national pasttime. “Once you start seeing everything through the lens of risk, nothing is safe enough,” she says.

    Skenazy says she’s not anti-safety—she’s for gates and car seats, seat belts, and helmets, and thinks window guards are a good idea. These items have stood the test of time and don’t cost an arm and a leg, she says.

    But believing that we can prevent every bad thing from happening to our children isn’t realistic or healthy. Our hypervigilance has gone too far. As the country has become a safer place, where it’s no longer common to lose a child to disease or unsanitary conditions, our belief has shifted to expect that nothing bad should ever happen to a child. And if it does, it’s someone’s fault, she says.

    Marketers play right into that, she says. Safety is a golden word: “You can always sell stuff to new parents.”

    So new parents these days are drowning in safety products. Stores such as Buy Buy Baby and Babies R Us—neither of which existed at all until 1996—have enormous aisles devoted to safety products, from monitors that go off if baby stops breathing to a $6.99 “toilet-tissue guard,” which presumably guards toddlers against the danger of encountering a furious mom or dad after they’ve unraveled the whole roll of toilet paper and made a mess of the bathroom. It’s enough to make a new parent’s head feel like it’s exploding. The “childproofing” subsection of the “safety” category of the Buy Buy Baby website runs to 120 items alone; there are dozens more in other subsections, including 45 bath safety products and 27 different baby monitors. Companies such as One Step Ahead offer foam helmets—yes, really—and knee pads to protect babies from bumps as they learn to crawl and walk.

    It’s easy to laugh at baby knee pads, but much harder to avoid the siren call of safety altogether. What is “safe enough?” When we were picking out a car seat before our daughter was born, my husband and I chose the more expensive one because—you guessed it—the guy helping us at Buy Buy Baby said it was the safest model, with some extra head protection features. Never mind that the dozens of car seats they were selling all met the safety standards required by federal regulators. “Do you want a dead baby?” my husband asked, using the nuclear option. How do you argue with that?

    Overwhelmed by the sheer number of options for keeping children safe, and the products designed to protect against dangers you hadn’t even contemplated before walking into the safety aisle, it’s not hard to see why parents might just opt to call in the pros.

    We already turn to them for so many other parenting questions. The “expert culture” is hard to escape, especially in parts of D.C. where new parents eagerly trade tips on books devoted to the right way to put your kid to sleep or soothe them. Of course, the experts often contradict each other. There’s an information overload, too. And who promises to cut through it all to make our lives simpler? The experts. Might we not be better off trusting our instincts, since we’re the ones who actually know our kids?

    “Everything is ‘expertized’ and ‘dangerized,’” Skenazy says. “The implication is everything is really difficult or dangerous, and you better be prepared.”

    Skenazy’s blog catalogs examples of over-the-top precautions (most recent entry: Girl Scouts making s’mores with marshmallow fluff instead of roasting them over a fire). With childproofing, she’s heard advice to carry shoelaces to other people’s homes to tie the cabinets shut.

    That kind of advice illustrates the shift from practical to ridiculous—not to mention insulting to the people you are visiting, she says. Parents instead need to teach kids that they can’t open every cabinet, especially in other people’s homes.

    “We can’t childproof the world,” Skenazy says. “Our job is to world-proof our children.”

    Professional childproofers take the opposite tack (and don’t suggest shoelace barriers). Who wants to say no all the time? Childproofing a house, in their view, gives parents and children more freedom: Kids have more chances to explore, and parents don’t have to follow them around constantly telling them “no” or moving dangerous items out of the way.

    “Childproofing does not make you an overbearing, overprotective parent,” Spahr says. “It makes you cautious.”

    Spahr is unapologetic for her cautious viewpoint—“no excuses,” she says—but she also has a sense of humor about the criticism. Earlier this year, she adopted the nickname “The Safety Freak,” which she uses on her blog and Twitter feed. On Twitter, where she is @TheSafetyFreak, she describes herself as “Mom of 4 delivering serious safety tips w/humor!”

    TheSafetyFreak tweets include reminders to check batteries in smoke alarms and product recalls. There are also posts to stories about tragic accidents, including a link to a recent story about a Loudoun County child who fell out of a window and died.

    Is tweeting this story a scare tactic? “Where is the line between a scare tactic and sharing information?” Spahr asks. If you don’t put this story out there because you’re afraid of looking like you’re trying to sell something, then you’re withholding information that might help someone decide to take steps, on their own or with Safe Start Baby, to make their windows safer. They do see an uptick in calls when a child tragedy is in the news, she says.

    Sharing a news story with Twitter followers does seem to fall under the service of information dissemination professional baby-proofers provide. But linking it directly to the services they offer pushes the boundary between helpful and crassly commercial. Spahr says there are baby-proofers who do use scare tactics to guilt people into buying things, but she doesn’t judge parents. She is providing information to let people know about the risks children face and how to prevent them, and she’s happy if they do the child proofing themselves or hire her.

    ***

    Parents today don’t need professionals to tell us our children are at risk of injury or death. The signs are everywhere: Large warning labels on the sides of infant bath tubs, car seats, and toy packages remind us that misusing these products could have disastrous consequences.

    Sociologist Joan Wolf writes about a phenomenon she calls “total motherhood”: that mothers are tasked with total responsibility for the welfare and enrichment of our children. Wolf says we’re a society of overthinkers.

    Wolf, a professor at Texas A & M University, says our society is preoccupied—perhaps even obsessed—with risk, and that we believe we can eliminate it if we just pay enough attention. Wolf argues that spending a few hundred dollars on professional childproofing services might be worth it if it reduces parents’ anxiety. If they can afford it, that is.

    That “overthinking worrier” description feels uncomfortably close to home. On one recent night, I felt sick to my stomach while feeding my daughter dinner in her high chair (warning: fall hazard!) and listening to a radio interview of Florence Williams, a science journalist who wrote the book Breasts. She had her breast milk tested and learned it contained traces of pesticides, jet fuel, and flame retardants. We’re told breastfeeding is best (the main point of Wolf’s book), yet I was likely giving my kid those same poisons—and at the same time, putting her in a high-chair cushion treated with flame-retardant chemicals.

    They don’t put all that on the warning labels. Safe Start Baby is just starting to branch into ecoproofing services, too. As awareness about the chemicals in our homes grows, this has a good chance of taking off, too.

    Social media and targeted Web ads only make anxiety worse. I saw the articles about the flame-retardant cushions from friends’ posts on Facebook. As I was researching this story, an ad on DC Urban Moms came up warning that a child dies every three weeks from a tipping TV. (The Consumer Product Safety Commission says 169 kids were killed by falling TVs between 2000 and 2010 nationwide.) A quick perusal of the forums turns up posts about unimaginably terrible things that have happened to children in the last few weeks—from being swept away in the flood waters of Hurricane Sandy or mauled at the zoo to being killed by a nanny. Are any of those things likely to happen to my kid? No. But do they still make me panic a little? Yes.

    Skenazy, the Free Range Kids author, says our perspective is warped by these danger stories, because the media is obsessed with weird and rare tragedies. “We have lost any ability to keep perspective how rare these tragedies are,” she says. Being killed by a caregiver, for example, is as rare as a meteor hitting your house, Skenazy says.

    There are occasional news stories about about children drowning in toilets, which happens extremely infrequently. All of them somehow resonate far more with parents than the simple, and obvious, fact that the vast majority of toilets pose no danger to the vast majority of kids.

    But if there’s one product that has come to symbolize both the precautions that some professional baby-proofers suggest and the eye-rolling that such precautions often engender in others, it’s the toilet lock.

    In the movie Baby Mama, Amy Poehler pees in a sink after Tina Fey brings in the “Boo Boo Busters” before the baby in question is even born. The service locks her toilets. “Only a crazy person locks their toilet,” Poehler’s character angrily says. “It’s for the baby,” Fey’s Type A character replies. “It’s safe.”

    But professional-grade baby-proofers aren’t deterred by being mocked by professional-grade comedians. They’ve got another reason to lock your toilets ready: It keeps your electronics safe. Brooner, of Baby Proofing Montgomery, says a toilet lock won’t let your kid throw your iPhone down the commode. (Or their own toys, for that matter.) Does it seem more extreme than just keeping the bathroom door shut? Sure. But what other $11.99 piece of plastic wards off the paramedics, the Genius Bar, and the plumber all at once?

    On Capitol Hill, Loverdos makes her way through the house, passing on information about fire safety and a reminder about carbon monoxide detectors. On the first floor, she advises the homeowner watch the area around the fireplace. They don’t want a gate for the fireplace because they don’t ever use it, but Loverdos points out that a kid could trip and get a bump, so they should be aware if their daughter is playing around there.

    A few of her warnings are more obscure: Don’t let kids bang on the pots and pans you cook with, because then they might try to play with them when they are on the stove and hot. And in the pantry, keep salt out of reach because too much ingested can be fatal. The pots-and-pans suggestion sounds like something out of Skenazy’s book. To take away something kids have played with for ages because they might do something dangerous with it seems like overkill—or a quick way to clear out your kids’ toys.

    An hour and a half after she arrives at the Capitol Hill row house for the assessment, Loverdos finishes up and steps outside. I ask her if we’ve become a more paranoid society. No, she says, just more distracted. Those iPhones we’re careful to keep out of toilets pull our attention away from watching our kids.

    A recent Wall Street Journal article about ER doctors seeing an uptick in visits from kids backs this up. But the kinds of injuries that can send a kid to the hospital can happen anywhere, inside the house or out; baby-proofing your living room won’t keep your daughter from tripping on the sidewalk and banging her head. For that matter, it won’t keep her from tripping over a toy in the baby-proofed living room and doing the same thing, though child-proofing will help reduce the risk of the most serious injuries.

    Maybe the real appeal of professional child-proofing is the way the services can help you forget all that. Hiring a firm to come evaluate your house can make it seem like a safe, secure place carved out amid the endless dangers in the world around. Even if that sense of security is exaggerated—baby-proofing can’t ward off all hazards, after all—there’s something to be said for peace of mind. That may, actually, be part of the appeal of any child-proofing, whether DIY or professionally managed: Eliminating the obvious risks, like falling down the stairs or pulling the TV down, makes parents feel like they have control in an uncontrollable world.

    As I was researching this article, I asked my daughter’s pediatrician if she recommended professional baby-proofers and if she saw a lot of people using the services. She paused, then said, “I think you can do it yourself.” She suggested I get down on the floor and look at things from my daughter’s viewpoint, which is one of the first pieces of advice baby-proofers give.

    I plan to do that soon. Also, to look into window latches for our older windows upstairs, once the weather gets warm enough to open them again. And furniture straps for our dressers. Just in case.