SEATTLE - Jon Aguirre has seen the enemy, and it looks like your standard-issue toilet bowl. It also resembles a stove and a kitchen drawer, lurks around corners and behind closed doors - and sometimes it's the very corners and doors themselves.
Others sense such dangers, too, which is why Aguirre is here at the Maple Valley, Wash., home of Theresa Venhuis and Barry Bond, installing magnet-controlled locks on 29 different cabinets.
Has it come to this? Do people so fear the unthinkable - and mostly improbable - that they will pay hundreds of dollars to shield their homes from dangers weathered by earlier generations? And can someone make a living riding to the rescue?
Our hero wears not a cape, but a button-down shirt reading "Baby Blockers" near the pocket. Jon Aguirre is a baby-proofer, meaning his Issaquah, Wash.-based outfit recommends, and installs, child-safety devices in the homes of worried new parents. From an alphabet-themed foam pad nearby, 8 1/2-month-old Adrienne Bond watches him transform den into playroom with a pair of protective gates.
Aguirre fires up his drill, startling Adrienne, whose horror-stricken look turns to tears. "It's OK," her mother calms. "All better! All better!"
For parents who call on baby-proofers to provide peace of mind, you could say the same thing. Is the world really so perilous? Consider: Injuries such as burns, choking, drowning, falls and poisonings are the top killer of children nationwide.
"When you and I were growing up, we would call those things an accident," says child-safety lecturer Charlie King of Seattle's Skyking Safety. But most are predictable, he says, and if they're predictable, that means they're preventable.
But how far should parents go? Electric outlet covers, drawer latches and stairwell gates seem reasonable, but what about the Heat Sensor spoon, which changes color when baby's food is too hot? Or the Baby No Bumps helmet (from Pampermematernity.com), which promises to protect newly ambulant toddlers from horrific spills?
Aguirre says he aims to make homes safe without going too far. His on-site consultations are free; it's the materials and labor (optional) that cost.
"One thing baby-proofing does is allow you to take a shower, to hold an adult conversation - things you take for granted if you don't have a child," Aguirre says. "We're busier now than we were 30 years ago. Cell phones, e-mail - we're so accessible that it makes it easier for us to be distracted."
For Adrienne Bond's parents, baby-proofing was a given. "People are more aware," mother Venhuis says. She wipes aside a lock of hair to reveal a scar, testimony to her own childhood collision with a corner. "Enough accidents have happened. Cars have seat belts now. People are becoming more educated."
Thanks to those magnet-triggered locks, she won't have to move poisonous items to higher shelves. "I think most people are supportive of anyone who wants to baby-proof to the extent that we are," she says. "Now I can let her roam around without having to constantly watch her."
Baby-proofers offer a personal and professional touch that can't be found in the aisles of Babies "R" Us. The concept sprang from California in the 1970s and helped fuel a juvenile-products industry that hit $6 billion in annual sales in 2000.
Besides being busier, many new parents are older, have bigger homes and more money to spend on child-safety items invented to anticipate every need. As a result, says Denise Fields, co-author of 2003's "Baby 411: Clear Answers and Smart Advice For Your Baby's First Year" ($11.95, Windsor Peak Press), parents feel pressured to battle what-ifs in any way they can.
In Seattle, two long-running baby-proofing practitioners are Sherri Albert and Janis Grusz, who've managed Safety for Toddlers for 13 years.
Grusz and Albert speak at gatherings like the new mothers group meeting in Dianne Andrews' Edmonds home; it's part business pitch, part child-safety primer. Ten moms dot sofas and chairs with babes in arms or spread out on blankets as Grusz paints vigilance by the numbers.
"Each year," she says, "more children die in home-related accidents than from disease. ... But the best stat I can give you is that nine of 10 accidents didn't have to happen. I want you to think about how much control you have."
While nothing replaces constant adult supervision, items exist to make life easier. Toilet locks, for instance, protect kids - and household items they might get their hands on - from falling inside.
Accidents happen, she says. Don't be hard on yourselves. "I don't want to scare you all to death. You can make a huge difference in their environment just by being aware."
With that, one toddler takes a tumble at Grusz's feet; his head thumps loudly against the hardwood floor, eliciting a collective "oooh" from the moms and then a spiraling wail from the boy. Nods his mother as she gathers him up: "It just takes a second."
Newly armed with information, new mother Andrews ponders a toilet lock but wonders how baby-proofers might secure an antique chest where she stores china. "You don't want to destroy everything in the process of child-proofing it," she says.
So far, her security consists only of a stairway gate and a table moved to block the hearth. "I refuse to put those little bumpers on everything," she says.
"We all kind of feel like we need these things," says Beaven Walters, mother of 3-month-old Sophie. "Maybe things have gotten more complicated."
Even if chances are small, no parent wants his or her baby to be the statistic. Says Walters: "Talk about the worst guilt you could ever feel in your entire life."
Aguirre has outfitted hundreds of homes; he's worked on so many that he once baby-proofed the same home twice - for different families. He's even baby-proofed a boat doubling as one couple's summer residence. "That's where their boy learned to walk," he says.
Colette, his wife, runs the office while he does the fieldwork, about 40 consultations and installations a month.
Aguirre doesn't panic parents with statistics; instead, he focuses on the visible hazards and leaves them with an itemized recommendation list. "They don't need to hear (numbers)," he says. "They're already scared enough."
Recommendations fall into two categories. First are "safety" items that pose life-threatening dangers - chemicals, stairs, outlets and so on. The rest - small pots and pans, tapes and CDs - are filed under "nuisance" and can wait until parents judge a child's tendency to tamper and how much that tests their own patience.
Solutions usually involve outlet covers, latches and gates - but the cost depends on the house and parents' desired security level. One of Aguirre's clients racked up a $4,000 price tag, while others spend as little as $200 for a single gate installation.
Baby-proofing clients are typically middle to upper-middle class. Aguirre says baby-proofing in homes with their bigger kitchens and master bedrooms, runs between $1,000 and $1,500, compared with $800 to $1,200 for more modest homes.
At consultations, he's at work in seconds - eyeing trouble spots, pawing and pondering, scribbling on his notepad. At a four-story beach home that eventually earns an $1,800 estimate, he warns against those freestanding living-room lamps that can be pulled over. That plant - if it's toxic, toss it. He suggests moving a chair to block a piece of corner artwork. And that low-perched liquor cabinet is bad news.
Naturally, he says, skepticism is no stranger to his work. Some dads want to do the work themselves. Grandparents protest that they raised their kids in the house without incident.
Undeterred, he powers on. "We try to avoid hospital visits," Aguirre says. "Little things, a lot of times you can't avoid them unless you attach kids to a Velcro wall."
Making your home baby-safe involves common sense - and patience if you plan to install things yourself. Consumer writer Denise Fields suggests that parents who want to baby-proof do it before their child starts crawling.
"Until the kid gets up and heads for the basement stairs, they don't think about it," she says of parents. "They rush to cover all the bases. That's when a lot of them turn to baby-proofers."
In general, parents should:
-Stabilize anything that could fall or be pulled over.
-Remove or place out of reach anything small children can choke on or be choked by.
-Latch or lock anything containing valuable or potentially harmful items within a child's reach, or move those items to higher storage areas.
-Block off stairwells and electrical outlets.
-Lower your water thermostat to between 114-120 degrees to avoid scalding.
Baby-proofers often suggest leaving one unlatched drawer for kids to get into during kitchen time with safe items, such as small pans and Tupperware. "Don't take everything away," Fields says. "That's how toddlers learn. They need to explore."
Baby Blockers, Issaquah, Wash., 425-837-8660, www.babyblockers.com
Safety For Toddlers, Kirkland, Wash., 425-487-3460, www.safety4toddlers.com
National Safe Kids Campaign: www.safekids.org
U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission: www.cpsc.gov
Children's Safety Network: www.childrenssafetynetwork.org
International Association for Child Safety: www.iafcs.com
(c) 2004, The Seattle Times. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.