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Best buys for your baby

Latest guide from Consumer Reports offers parents a look at the “Best Baby Products,” as rated by their product-testing and safety experts. Read some highlights here.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, four million babies are born in the United States annually. And as parents and grandparents know, babies require gear, gear and more gear. In fact, baby products are a multi-billion dollar industry with thousands of products, and stepping into a baby products store can be often be overwhelming, especially for first-time parents.

That’s where the eighth edition ofConsumer Reports Best Baby Products,” comes in handy. It offers childproofing and home safety tips, recent safety recalls and unbiased product advice. Here are some highlights:

Car SeatsConsumer Reports is the only publication that tests and reports on car seat crash protection. Every model of car seats in the U.S. must meet federal safety standards, butConsumer Reports conducts more rigorous tests in this product category and in many others too.

A car seat should be high on a to-buy list because you must have it in order to bring your baby home from the hospital by car, and you’ll need it for every car trip.

Make sure the car seat is compatible with your car. Bring the floor model to your car for a mock installation. Check a store's return policy. If you are not happy with the car seat for whatever reason, it is important to know you can return it and try another model or get your money back.

Start with an infant seat — the rear facing and cradle type seats — before moving up to a convertible car seat once the baby grows to at least 20 pounds. Why? It allows infants to recline at an angle that does not interfere with breathing, and protects them best in a crash. An infant car seat fits best and you can move baby from car to house without waking him or her up — a plus for both of you!

Consumer Reports Best Baby Products recommends the Graco SnugRide infant car seat, which as an approximate retail price of $85. This is based on crash protection, ease of use and best fit for the LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) system of car seat connections to anchor points in the car, and ease of use and best fit for using a safety belt to attach the car seat.

StrollersConsumer Reports does extensive unbiased testing of hundreds of strollers from all brands, styles and price ranges.

Consumer Reports Best Baby Products recommends selecting the stroller yourself even if someone else is paying for it. Strollers, like cars, are highly personal buying decisions. You should take it for a test drive in the store.

Try opening, folding, lifting the stroller with one hand, because your other arm will often be holding the baby. Make sure you can stand tall when you push the stroller, and that your legs and feet don't hit the wheels when you walk. If both you and your spouse or partner will be using the stroller, you should both try it out. Some models have adjustable handles, which is important if one parent is much taller than the other. If possible, take the floor model out to your car to make sure it will fit in your trunk when it's folded. Jiggle the frame. It should feel solid, not loose. Compare maneuverability.

For traditional strollers,Consumer Reports Best Baby Products recommendsthe Peg Perego Aria — lightweight and very easy to use when opening, folding, pushing, turning. It has an approximate retail value of $170. The recommendation is based on ease of use, safety and durability. Ease of use was judged by opening, folding, pushing straight, turning, going up and down curbs, loading baskets and using the stroller with a car seat. Safe design for this age group was assessed. Durability testing meant exposing the stroller to static loads of up to 100 pounds in the seat, opening and closing the stroller 400 times, and testing how it held up after holding a maximum load over the equivalent of 50 miles of bumpy pavement.

Consumer Reports Best Baby Products advises that the safest crib is one that is bare except for mattress and fitted crib sheet. Loose, blankets, pillows or fluffy quilted bumper pads should never be used because they are a suffocation and SIDS hazard.

Price does not always equal quality or safety. You don't have to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars to get a great product — especially for cribs. You can resist the temptation to splurge, stick to the basics, and get a great crib for performance, safety and value.

The simplest test for in-store shopping is to give the crib a slight shaking and see if the frame seems loose rather than solid. Be aware that the display models are often not as tightly assembled as they could be. You should not find new loose slats on a new crib. And without applying excessive pressure, try rotating each bar to see if it is well secured to the railings.

The best cribs have simple lines. Decide whether you want a crib with one drop side, two or none; that will narrow the selection considerably and make your crib shopping easier.

Crib mattress is important too. Squeeze them to check density. Check the mattress covering and edgings for quality. A firm mattress will be durable, promote proper posture, and keep its shape well. Both foam and innerspring crib mattresses are popular.

For the single drop-side crib models, Consumer Reports Best Baby Products recommends theFisher Price Starbright Stages Convertible Crib, with an approximate retail value of $300. Safety and convenience are what makes this a recommended crib. It's easy to use the drop sides, adjust the mattress height, and reach in to get the baby from the lowest mattress setting.

Changing Tables
Consumer Reports Best Baby Products advises parents to get a changing table that has the most barrier protection — four sides is best. The changing table pad should have a safety strap. Keep one hand on your baby at all times during changing, and never leave your baby unattended while on the table.

Consumer Reports Best Baby Products recommends that when shopping for a changing table, check for sturdiness — it should not wobble when you give it a light shake; try the table before you buy as if you were changing a baby. If you see a backache in your future because the table is too low, try another one. If you will change 2,000 plus diapers by the time one baby is potty trained, your back and baby will benefit from something made for the task.

Manufacturers for changing tables includeBadger Basket, Bellini and Child Craft.

When buying diapers,focus on fit — no sags or gaps equals a better fit. Newborns use plenty of diapers, but you should not load up on newborn size. Babies with a higher birth weight may not fit the smallest newborn size at all. Start with a package of newborn and a package of size one — about 48 diapers in all. Then buy in volume after the baby comes home.

Select the smallest size that fits your baby — a larger diaper costs more and may not fit as well, causing leaks. Watch out for diaper specials and then stock up. Use coupons and get them from calling customer service lines or Web sites of the disposable diaper companies.

Pampers Custom Fit Cruisers and Huggies Supreme are recommended byConsumer Reports Best Baby Products. The best diapers inConsumer Reports tests fit well on a variety of body types, prevented leaks the best, felt less moist even when wet, and had fasteners that stayed secure.

If you choose cloth diapers, the type of cloth diaper to choose is a personal preference — unfolded, pre-folded, pre-shaped are ones to try. And diapering systems include diaper and protective outer shell so you do not need safety pins. For cloth diapers, you will need two to three dozen to begin with and four to six waterproof outer pants. Diaper systems offer sampling packs of brands such as Bellies and Buns, Bumlins and Earthwise Basics.

Bath Time
Consumer Reports Best Baby Products says to never buy or use a baby bath seat with suction cups on the bottom for attaching to an adult bathtub. Bath seats can tip over when suction cups fail, and children can be trapped under water.

  • For a baby six months or younger, buy a bathtub that features a contoured design or an internal sling that cradles the baby in the water.
  • Mildew resistant pads are a plus. Buy a unit that does not fold, since collapsible tubs sometimes have problems with water leakage from the seams.
  • Get a tub with a drain that has an attached plug, so it is easier to empty the tub.

Any tub you buy will make the job of bathing a baby easier and more fun for both of you.

Basic newborn clothing
Buy only the basics, such as sleeping outfits, before the baby's arrival. Four sacks or one-piece sleepers with feet attached is a good starting-out number. But do not buy baby sleepwear that is too big; it is a fire hazard. Snug-fitting cotton and flame-resistant sleepwear are the safest choices.

Watch out for over-buying, and be conservative in the quantity you buy in newborn size. The baby wants to be comfortable and that means clothes that fit. A good rule for buying baby clothes is to double your child's age. A three-month old would fit nicely and with room for growth in a six-month old size. A weight and length chart for the baby is often on the clothes or the tags.

New parents should also purchase six side-snap T-shirts, six "onesie" undershirts with the snaps around the crotch and six pairs of socks or booties. You should have a small baby cap (the hospital may give you one) and a brimmed hat with elasticized chin strap to keep baby from batting it off. Have three soft comfortable daytime baby outfits in newborn size, then go for a 6-month size — your baby will grow into it quickly. Also have a sweater or light jacket.

Additional information about baby gear and other related topics is available at . "Consumer Reports Best Baby Products" is available now wherever books are sold.