Then, Mrs. Lavin says, "She gave me her phone number and copious amounts of reading material. All this while bags of frozen food were sitting in the trunk."
Two months later, the pair spend more than an hour in the hot sun arranging the child seats for all three of Mrs. Lavin's children PTC in her silver Toyota Camry station wagon.
Before they start, Mrs. Baer checks the serial number of an older Century infant seat Mrs. Lavin wants to use against a list of recalled seats. And she checks its age. Manufacturers say seats shouldn't be used after 10 years, since the metal can rust and the plastic weakens from exposure to hot and cold weather.
Mrs. Baer also asks whether the seat has been in a crash. "Car seats are disposable," she says, "throw them out after they have been used for their purpose -- protecting a child in a crash."
Next she carefully examines the seat for cracks in the plastic. The pad is ripping, but it can be covered. The pads are made with a special foam to protect the baby.
"The mistake parents often make is using a washable cloth cover and not the foam pad," she says. "It's not safe." New pads are available direct from the manufacturer, usually at $5 to $10.
Mrs. Baer also checks the back of the seat to see that the harness is secure -- "this is not threaded properly," she tells Mrs. Lavin. "Other than that, the seat's in great shape."
Mrs. Lavin has lost the instructions on how to secure the harness. No problem. Mrs. Baer opens the trunk of her car and pulls out a 3-inch-thick blue binder -- a complete set of child safety seat manufacturers' instructions published by the U.S. Transportation Department. They look them up.
Mrs. Baer shows Mrs. Lavin how to thread the harness and secure them in clips in the back so that they don't pop out on impact. (Newer seats have poles to secure the harness.)
On to the next seat. With a screwdriver from her trunk, Mrs. Baer converts a small shield booster seat to a belt position booster, essentially a seat that gives 5 1/2 -year-old Scott a better view and a properly positioned shoulder belt. Without it, the shoulder belt ran into his neck, threatening to do serious damage in an accident. Scott winces, but it works.
The seat for Mrs. Lavin's 2-year-old, Douglas, should give no more than one-half to three-quarters of an inch. To install it, Mrs. Baer jumps on the car seat and sinks both knees into it, pushing hard as she fastens the belt to attach it.
Her installations, achieved with pressure from her tiny 5-foot frame, are so secure that some mothers never take the seats out again, not for car pools, not for anything.
One of her tricks: twist the seat buckle once or twice, shortening it, before snapping the belt into it.
"The whole idea of any restraint is to make you part of the vehicle," Mrs. Baer says, "because when you become part of the vehicle and are held in securely, it helps you withstand forces of a crash."
Another tip, this one for infant seats in the front: start with the passenger seat in the widest leg-room position, install the infant seat and, when you are done, move the passenger seat back to the narrowest position. The infant seat also has to be parallel with the ground -- which usually means stuffing the bottom of reclining auto seats with thick towels before you install it.
"Do I need a clip for this?" Mrs. Lavin asks.
Mrs. Baer refers her to the car's manual to find out. Whether to use locking clips depends on the automobile seat belt -- not on which child car seat you purchase. Usually they are for cars whose seat belts only lock on impact. They come with car seats, but also can be ordered from companies like Century and Evenflo for about $10.
Without a locking clip, belts loosen and the infant seat goes from side to side or moves forward -- both of which are unsafe. Mrs. Baer carries a box of clips in her trunk.
The sun glistens as the women work -- it's hard to fit three children in the back, but Mrs. Lavin isn't comfortable putting a new baby in the front seat. (Mrs. Baer says this position is fine, as long as an infant under 20 pounds faces the rear.)
"I never knew it was so complicated," sighs Mrs. Lavin.
Mrs. Baer agrees it's hard. "Government agencies aren't acknowledging how hard it is," she says. When it comes to installing child seats, she says, "if it's easy, it's not right."
If you can't get it right, call Mrs. Baer at 653-1979. If that's busy, try Kids In Safe Seats (KISS), an agency of the Maryland Department of Transportation, 225-1376. Outside Baltimore, call (800) 370-SEAT.