IT IS a balmy summer evening in the heart of Chelsea. Bright young things in clean jeans are setting off for the wine bar, but we're a bit old for that. We are thirtysomethings, and we are heading for Nipper Snippers, a hairdressing salon exclusively for children.

We have left our children at home, however. Our purpose is a serious talk on safety and first aid on our children's behalf. This is 'Maternal Instincts', a class for parents and their nannies who do not have the first idea how to cope with an infant fever, or what to do when little Johnny stuffs Lego up his nose.

But first, a glass of wine. We pass the Twiglets and prepare for Alice Lewes, a Norland nanny with 17 years' experience, who is about to shock us with stories of the boy who drank the cough mixture, the child who locked herself in the loo at Heathrow, and the girl from Hampstead who, having been banished to her room, fell out of the window.

We grip our seats in terror. 'You all have nannies?' asks Alice. All - except me and the two nannies in the corner - nod their heads. 'The most important thing about child safety is to be careful who you leave the child with.' We sip nervously.

'I find it appalling,' says Alice, 'that people leave their children with au pairs who have just come over here and don't speak English.' Sally, the mother of two-year-old Flora and five-month-old Millie, says she found her nanny through the Lady magazine. This is no defence. 'Did you rely on written references?' asks Alice. 'Don't. Previous employers can't always write the awful truth in references because the girls wouldn't use them. So when it says at the bottom of the reference: 'Please telephone me for further information,' that means: 'For God's sake phone me, I've got something to tell you.' '

Alice Lewes has thought of everything. At 35, and with no children of her own, she has realised that most parents' idea of first aid is a half-empty red box gathering dust in the boot of the car. So, in two hours, she grouts the cracks in our maternal instinct with the quick tips and reassurances that parents long to hear.

'I once said to a friend, mothers have this maternal instinct, they know when something is wrong with their child,' says Alice. 'But there is lots that parents don't know about looking after their child in an emergency. I get some unbelievably stupid questions. People don't know the difference between a burn and a scald. They think you should put a child to bed after a nasty fall, even though he might have concussion. They want to rip off children's clothes when they are badly burnt, and wrap up overheated babies to keep them warm.'

Alice developed the class three years ago while training agency nannies. 'I discovered how little they knew about child safety,' she says.

She went on first aid courses run by the Red Cross and St John Ambulance service, but kept having to ask: 'What about children?' She spent five months poring over books and videos, and then launched herself on parents in Wandsworth and Battersea.

Damian Greenish has good reason to have rushed over from work. Son Freddie, at the tender age of two, broke his leg in two places when a smaller child sat on him, and then cut his temple in a fall. 'There was blood everywhere,' says Damian. 'We are all one big happy family down at the casualty department.'

Sally Patterson had a scare when she thought Flora had swallowed some morphine tablets. Baby Millie's favourite pastime is to grab coins and ram them into her mouth. 'I have come to learn how to stop my children detroying themselves,' she says.

Alice is well tuned to the likely problems of her audience. 'Anyone here got a Neff cooker?' she ventures, and there's a show of hands. 'It was on Watchdog,' she says, 'they are as hot on the outside as on the inside, and little hands can get stuck on the door. You need a special safety guard.'

'What about an Aga?' asks Caroline. 'Not nearly so hot,' says Alice, so swiftly that you know she's heard this one before. 'It's like a radiator that warms up gradually.'

Glass coffee tables and microwaves, sash windows and swimming pools - these are the perils of the middle-class baby's life. But for every catastrophe area, there is a solution: 'Those ill-fitting stair gates with a piece in the middle should be banned,' says Alice. 'A lot of people are having them properly fitted now by a carpenter, and they look much nicer.'

Other social problems include the drinks party. 'Ban peanuts from your house completely,' advises Alice. 'After a drinks party, you can guarantee that the one peanut that gets down the side of the sofa - the next morning your child will find it and choke on it.'

Suffocation, however, is not considered a serious problem in SW10. 'Your children are not going to suffocate,' says Alice. 'I don't want to sound awful, but it's a social thing. If you live in a council house with 10 children to look after, then the risk of suffocating from clingfilm, plastic bags, balloons, duvets and cats is much higher. Toxoplasmosis is also a greater risk on a council estate where the dogs haven't been wormed.'

We blink our way out into the evening light, wondering if we will ever remember the ABC of infant resuscitation, or how to handle a child after an electric shock. We wonder how we have dared to raise our children this far without an inkling of the basics of first aid.

Still, now there is something we can do about it. Like call a first-class carpenter in the morning, and invest in a safety guard for the Neff oven. Or send the nanny to Alice to learn how to be maternally instinctual on our behalf.

'You think of the children, they are so vulnerable,' says Oliver. 'This information could save a life. You could spend 70 quid on something silly for the child; the cost of this is nothing - what, pounds 15? I will definitely send our nanny on the course. I will insist on it.'

Alice Lewes, Maternal Instincts, 35 Beryl Road, London W6 8JS. Tel 081-741 8819.

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