Longform

Baby Bargains Dishes Dirt

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When he hangs up, Alan throws up his hands. "We've had a bomb drop on us," he says. By "we," he means parents across the country. The bombshell he's referring to is former Playboy model Jenny McCarthy, who appeared on Larry King Live and other media outlets saying her son's autism was linked to the vaccinations he was given as a baby. While medical experts dispute the claim, the parents of one of Brown's patients has already canceled a routine vaccination, preferring to risk their kid's getting sick rather than have to suffer like McCarthy's son. The Fieldses are sure the same thing is happening nationwide.

The situation has a personal side for the couple. One of their sons has Asperger's syndrome, a pervasive developmental disorder. "We have a son with Asperger's syndrome, and we were watching Jenny McCarthy say if you don't get the help she recommends, your child is lost to the world," says Denise angrily. "She is an actress, not a doctor."

Several years ago, Brown approached the Fieldses and asked if they would help her write a book that, among other things, advocated that vaccines are important and safe.

"It seemed to fit with the same mission we had," says Denise, who co-authored the 2004 guide to sleep, health and nutrition titled Baby 411. Leaving the medical advice to Brown, Denise infused the book with the same witticisms and pragmatism as her other tomes. But she had still crossed a line from dispensing advice about baby products to weighing in on infant health and safety, and some wondered why the Fieldses should be considered any more reliable than Jenny McCarthy.

"I know the Baby Bargains books are extremely popular, and they have been for a long time. Some things in them seem like opinion, and with others, you wonder, 'How did they come up with that?'" says Amy Chezem, communication director for the JPMA. "It's important to find out how they base their opinions. Is it based on a poll of 1,000 moms, or did they talk to pediatricians?"

The Fieldses admit their product reviews are based on personal opinions — their own and their readers'. "We are not dropping bowling balls on cribs," says Alan. "I'm not testing it like Consumer Reports, but I am talking to people who use these things in the real world. If people didn't believe our recommendations, it wouldn't sell. I think that's the bottom line." The Fieldses promise a money-back guarantee if a Baby Bargains book doesn't save a reader $250 or if Bridal Bargains doesn't save $500. Of the 100,000 or so books that sell each year, they say they get fewer than a hundred returned copies.

The Fieldses also point out that they use scientific and medical experts to make decisions on issues such as baby-bottle chemicals and infant vaccinations. And others back them up.

Although Kids in Danger, a non-profit product-safety advocacy group doesn't endorse any commercial products, it does recommend the Fieldses' book. "Baby Bargains is the one source on general baby products that includes safety information," says Nancy Cowles, executive director of the Chicago-based agency. "In other sources, there is not the kind of analysis about these products."

Even the federal agency in charge of regulating many baby products, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, doesn't offer much help. "I think most parents are surprised to find out that there is no requirement that any of these baby products be tested for safety before they are sold," Cowles says.

Baby Bargains has also done "a marvelous job of tapping into the parents' kingdom, and what goes bad with a product from a parent's point of view," says Sandy Jones, co-author of several past editions of the Consumer Reports Guide to Baby Products.

"Consumer Reports may give a nod to a large, one-size-fits-all car seat because it tested well in a laboratory," she points out, "while Alan and Denise Fields will say, 'Parents hate this seat. It takes up too much space and the buckles don't work right.'"

It's advice the Fieldses plan to keep giving even as their personal experiences with infants fade into memory. "We're stuck. It's like Groundhog Day," cracks Alan. "We have baby food in the fridge, and our kids are eleven and fourteen. It's absurd."

Despite being the children of the nation's frugal-family experts, Denise says her sons don't have it rough. Sure, their nurseries were bare, she admits: "To be perfectly honest, babies don't care." Nowadays, however, as the only grandchildren on both sides of the family, they get more than their share of goodies. "They are hopelessly spoiled when it comes to toys," she says. "They want for nothing."

As their boys get older and the Fieldses grow out of the wedding-planning and baby-making generations, some people wonder if there's one more topic they will investigate. "The third leg of the triangle is probably funerals," Alan says, adding that there are no current plans for a Death Bargains. "We just haven't gone there."

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Joel Warner is a former staff writer for Westword and International Business Times. He's also written for WIRED, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, Slate, Grantland and many other publications. He's co-author of the 2014 book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published by Simon & Schuster.
Contact: Joel Warner