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The Mother of Invention Fairs: Harvey Karp and T. Berry Brazelton help Babble’s Gadget Inspector process the ABC Kids Expo in Vegas.

I am not the Vegas type. I don’t drink much. I have never had a lap dance. My idea of gambling is taking my seven-month-old out on the town with only one burp cloth.

Still, I was excited about my trip to the Las Vegas Convention Center for the ABC Kids Expo. The tradeshow’s website promised “the premier juvenile products specialty show in the nation ” with 460,000 square feet of exhibition space and nearly 700 registered vendors – not to mention an all-attendee reception featuring the music of the Desperate Dads.

My cab pulled up to the convention center on a Monday morning. I was prepared for a chaotic scene, but found myself even more surprised and confused than I had anticipated. Almost everyone was male and there was not a single baby product in sight. I took my notebook out to jot down this surprising first impression. Then I spotted a passing name tag and discovered that I was at a True Value Hardware convention.

It took me about 20 minutes to make it to the other end of the 3.2 million-square-foot convention center, and when I arrived, I felt more intimidated than excited. As I stood atop the stairs that descended into the showroom, I could see the nearly 700 exhibits spread out over an ocean of dark blue carpeting. silvercross.jpg
I ran my finger along the spokes of $3,000 Silver Cross carriages, and sipped wine with a designer whose exhibit included a naked mannequin wearing a faux-suede infant carrier.

It was a job for an army of gadget inspectors, but there was only me. I grabbed a complimentary tote bag and took a deep breath.

Over the next six hours, I ran my finger along the spokes of $3,000 Silver Cross carriages, and sipped wine with a designer whose exhibit included a naked mannequin wearing a faux-suede infant carrier. I had an intense discussion about the war in Lebanon with an Israeli inventor holding his portable toddler toilet. (As far as I could tell, the toilet was nothing more than a cardboard box with a hole in it.) I argued with a man who insisted that he had come up with the first innovation in the spoon since 4782 B.C. (“But what about the spork?” “The spork is not a spoon. It’s a combination of fork and spoon.” “It’s still a spoon!”). I met an ultra-Orthodox Jewish owner of a stroller company who was much more interested in wrapping traditional Jewish leather cords around my arm than in talking about his strollers.

I met a Mormon from Utah who had invented a wrist watch with a toilet-shaped face to assist children with potty training and then smiled politely as he sang “Look at me, it’s potty time, potty time,” to the tune of London Bridges. I met a pediatric urologist, a.k.a. The Potty MD, who had invented a toy monkey that calls out to be taken to the bathroom every half hour. (If you fail to take Potty Monkey to his toilet, he calmly announces that he’s had an accident.) I ate fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies from a woman selling cloisonn’ “It’s a Boy” and “It’s a Girl” lapel pins and washed them down with a sample of a nutritional shake for pregnant and nursing mothers. I gawked at a stuffed human arm designed to comfort babies when human flesh is unavailable. I twice tried to look at Fisher Price’s products, which had been barricaded behind moving walls, and was twice told that I could not see them without the Fisher Price press liaison – who had already left town. I admired painted plaster casts of pregnant bellies and sucked on anti-nausea Preggie Pops. I began to count the companies that claimed Angelina Jolie used their products, then lost track when the number got too high. I listened to and enjoyed birthing music.

Despite my failure to penetrate fortress Fisher Price and the pang of regret I felt upon learning I had missed the Desperate Dads, I was enjoying myself. But the ABC Kids Expo is about more than strange products, scatological humor and free food. It is also about death.

The Earth Mama Angel Baby display included the company’s “Healing Hearts Baby Loss Comfort Kit,” which comes complete with tea, aromatherapy mists, and “Seeds of Hope – a packet of organic herb blossom seeds that comes with a “special blessing.” A woman pitching a monitoring device that attaches to a car seat reminded everyone who passed by her exhibit that every 9.5 days an American child dies after being forgotten in a car. The inventor of CPR Teddy, a teddy bear that doubles as an unconscious infant, handed out literature on choking hospitalization rates. At the Pure Plushy exhibit, I learned that plush toys can have “up to 50 times more serious germs” than a toilet seat in the same home. Even the products that weren’t explicitly about sickness and death were often so decorated in the morbid graffiti of warnings and hazards that I found it hard to look at them without envisioning a tragic accident.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the ABC Kids Expo is also about moms. I met a number of fathers at the show, including the guy who had invented a jock-shaped sponge to prevent his son from urinating on him, but the majority of the inventors were mothers and most of them told me a different version of the same story: they had been taking care of their own children when they found themselves in need of a product that didn’t yet exist. A mother who didn’t like her children grabbing public toilets had dreamed up Potty Mitts. A mother who had dropped her baby in a swimming pool was selling waterproof baby carriers, and so on. There is even a company, Mom Inventors, Inc., that appears to be specifically created to exploit this new pool of entrepreneurial talent.

A trade show is not a good place to think, but when I returned from Vegas, I continued to ponder the questions that I brought home – along with a pocketful of Preggie Pops. I wondered if parents and babies were really better off with so many different gadgets at their disposal. One mother I met not long after the show told me that she had been so overwhelmed while shopping for her newborn at BuyBuy Baby that she had an anxiety attack in the store. Was there such a thing as too many products?

I posed this question to Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, author of Touchpoints: YourT. Berry Brazelton said that parent consumerism can be problematic when products begin to interfere with the parent-child relationship. Child’s Emotional and Behavioral Development, and perhaps the most influential American baby expert since Dr. Spock. In a telephone interview, Brazelton said that parent consumerism can be problematic when products begin to interfere with the parent-child relationship. “I think it’s some sort of substitute for what the parents wish for and what the baby wishes for, which is more interpersonal interaction,” Brazelton said.

I knew what Brazelton meant. I am home with my son, Isaac, two days a week, and during those days I inevitably find that there are times when I abandon Isaac to his exersaucer – a circular, plastic device that keeps a baby propped on two feet and surrounded by toys.
The ITZBEEN Baby Care Timer, a handheld device that makes it easy to keep track of your baby’s last meal, nap and diaper change would have been extremely useful during Isaac’s first months.Sometimes I feel guilty about using the exersaucer for a break, but, at the same time, it’s hard for me to imagine what I would do without it. Because, while it’s true that some products serve as substitutes for human contact, it’s also true that most modern parents, separated from their extended families, have little help. And, much as I genuinely love it when Isaac drools on my face and tries to claw my eyes out with his clammy hands, I need some time every day during which my eyes are not being clawed out.

Dr. Harvey Karp, author of The Happiest Baby on The Block and famed baby soother, sounded a bit less concerned than Brazelton about the proliferation of baby products. “You have to separate the wheat from the chaff,” Karp said. “I’m sure there are too many products, but I think the marketplace is pretty efficient at helping parents find their way between what’s useful and what’s not.”

Karp’s response reminded me that, for all the products that struck me as bizarre at best and junk at worst, I also saw a number of new items at the ABC Kids Expo that looked promising. The ITZBEEN Baby Care Timer, a handheld device that makes it easy to keep track of your baby’s last meal, nap and diaper change, would have been extremely useful during Isaac’s first months. The Binky Buddy, a small strip of soft fabric that helps keep a pacifier from falling out of a baby’s mouth, seemed a vast improvement on my idea – dreamed up one sleepless night – of taping Isaac’s pacifier to his face with Band-Aids

The ABC Kids Expo may be a sign of an industry expanding to the point of farce, but it’s not yet time to write the whole thing off. Somewhere between portable cardboard toilets and death, there is hope.

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