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Oh, Dear! Baby Gear! Why Are the Manuals So Unclear?

Oh, Dear! Baby Gear! Why Are the Manuals So Unclear?

(Olga Pankova/Getty Images)

Since becoming a father a few months ago, I’ve been nursing a grudge against something tiny, seemingly inconsequential, and often discarded: instructional manuals. Parenthood requires a lot of gadgetry to maintain a kid’s health and welfare. Those gadgets require puzzling over booklets, decoding inscrutable pictographs, and wondering whether warnings can be safely ignored or are actually disclosing a hazard.

To give an example, my daughter, typically a cooing little marsupial, quickly discovered babyhood’s superpower: Infants emerge from the womb with talon-strength fingernails. She wasn’t afraid to use them, against either her parents or herself. So we purchased a pistachio-green, hand-held mani-pedi device.

That was the easy part. The difficulty came when we consulted the manual, a palm-sized, two-page document.

A photo of a father holding his infant daughter while reading an instruction manual in his other hand.
KFF Health News correspondent Darius Tahir holds his nearly 5-month-old daughter while reviewing an instruction manual. Tahir writes that the manuals for baby health and wellness gadgetry can be hard to understand, even for tech-savvy parents.(The Tahir family)

The wandlike tool is topped with a whirring disc. One can apparently adjust the speed of its rotation using a sliding toggle on the wand. But the product manual offered confusing advice: “Please do not use round center position grinding,” it said. Instead, “Please use the outer circle position to grinding.” It also proclaimed, “Stay away from children.” In finer print, the manual revealed the potential combination of kids and the device’s smaller parts was the reason for concern.

One would hope for more clarity about a doodad that could inadvertently cause pain.

Later, I noticed another warning: “If you do not use this product for a long time, please remove the battery.” Was it dangerous? Or simply an unclear and unhelpful yet innocuous heads-up? We didn’t know what to do with this information.

We now notice shoddy instructions everywhere.

One baby carrier insert told us to use the product for infants with “adequate” head, neck, and torso control — a vague phrase. (The manufacturer declined to comment.)

Another manual, this one online and for a car seat — a device that’s supposed to protect your kid — informed readers with words and images that a model baby was “properly positioned” relative to the top of the headrest “structure” when more than one inch from the top. Just pixels away, the same model, slumped further down, was deemed improperly positioned: “The headrest should not be more than 1” from the top of her head,” it said, in tension with its earlier instructions. Which was it, more than one inch or not? So we fiddle and hope for the best.

I acknowledge this sounds like new-parent paranoia. But we’re not entirely crazy: Manuals are important, and ones for baby products “are notoriously difficult to write,” Paul Ballard, the managing director of 3di Information Solutions, a technical writing firm, told me.

Deborah Girasek, a professor of social and behavior sciences at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, told me that for decades, for the young and middle-aged alike, unintentional injury has been the leading cause of death. That’s drownings, fires, suffocation, car crashes. The USU is a federal service academy training medical students destined for the armed services or other parts of the government.

Some of these deaths are caused by lack of effective communication — that is, the failure of instruction about how to avoid injury.

And these problems stretch from cheap devices to the most sophisticated products of research and development.

It’s a shortcoming that’s prompted several regulatory agencies charged with keeping Americans healthy, including the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, to prod companies into providing more helpful instructions.

By some lights, they’ve had success. NHTSA, for example, has employees who actually read manuals. The agency says about three-quarters of car seats’ manuals rate four or five stars out of five, up from 38% in 2008. Then again, our car seat’s has a five-star rating. But it turns out the agency doesn’t evaluate online material.

Medical product manuals sometimes don’t fare too well either. Raj Ratwani, director of MedStar Health’s Human Factors program, told me that, for a class he teaches to nurses and doctors, he prompted students to evaluate the instructions for covid-19 tests. The results were poor. One time, instructions detailed two swabs. The kit had only one.

Technical writers I spoke with identified this kind of mistake as a symptom of cost cutting. Maybe a company creates one manual meant to cover a range of products. Maybe it puts together the manual at the last moment. Maybe it farms out the task to marketers, who don’t necessarily think about how manuals need to evolve as the products do.

For some of these cost-cutting tactics, “the motivation for doing it can be cynical,” Ballard said.

Who knows.

Some corners of the technical writing world are gloomy. People worry their jobs aren’t secure, that they’re going to be replaced by someone overseas or artificial intelligence. Indeed, multiple people I spoke with said they’d heard about generative AI experiments in this area.

Even before AI has had its effect, the job market has weighed in. According to the federal government, the number of technical writers fell by a third from 2001, its recent peak, to 2023.

One solution for people like us — frustrated by inscrutable instructions — is to turn to another uncharted world: social media. YouTube, for instance, has helped us figure out a lot of the baby gadgets we have acquired. But those videos also are part of a wild West, where creators offer helpful tips on baby products then refer us to their other productions (read: ads) touting things like weight loss services. Everyone’s got to make a living, of course; but I’d rather they not make a buck off viewers’ postpartum anxiety.

It reminds me of an old insight that became a digital-age cliché: Information wants to be free. Everyone forgets the second half: Information also wants to be expensive. It’s cheap to share information once produced, but producing that information is costly — and a process that can’t easily or cheaply be replaced. Someone must pay. Instruction manuals are just another example.

This article was produced by KFF Health News, a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF — the independent source for health policy research, polling, and journalism.