You're surrounded by some 600-plus infants, ranging in age from several weeks to 42 months. You're also surrounded by doting parents, all of whom hold fast to the age-old belief that their child is the world's best.

And then, under the baby-contest format, you're a judge who is to rank, rate, evaluate and eventually select winners in the various age divisions or novelty categories, knowing full well that folks can get awfully delighted or defensive when it comes to their offspring.

Mommas, don't let your babies grow up to be baby judges.

That scenario describes my stint as a volunteer judge during Tuesday's baby contest at the America's Freedom Festival in Provo.

Me - a volunteer baby judge? I hyperventilate at the mention of the word "babysit" and think I'm certainly on the verge of a nervous breakdown when my kids bring a handful of their friends into the yard to play.

Besides, wasn't it me who, tongue in cheek, poked fun at the same baby contest in previous years?

OK, so I wasn't an outright volunteer - I had been cornered several weeks earlier by event chairman Denise Bronson. Hoping to claim inexperience as an excuse, I detailed my limited previous experience - other than an art show and a science fair at an elementary school, the only other judging I had done was livestock judging as an early teen participating in 4-H in Colorado.

I mean, wouldn't it be a little tacky to estimate the back fat on each kid or to talk about weaning weights?

No luck - I was stuck. I joined seven other "volunteer" judges, who included the recently selected Miss Provo royalty. We were instructed to rate each child according to three categories - personality, general appearance and reaction to judges.

The last one proved just as I expected, with most kids either scared to death or bored to death with me. Maybe I should have gone back to the poking and prodding from judging steers, but that probably would have brought another type of reaction - this time from the parents.

First, a little background and history about the decade-old, festival-associated baby contest. The original participants totaled only a few dozen, and the inaugural winners received nothing more than small ribbons.

This week's contest, on the other hand, attracted more than 600 children, with each registered participant receiving a certificate, a color portrait and coupons for a free ice cream cone and a free 8-by-10-inch photo. The 55 age-division and novelty category honorees were given baby-sized trophies along with cash and prizes donated by contest sponsors. All were honored at an awards ceremony later that night, with some top winners also to be seen in the festival's Grand Parade on July 4.

The children were divided into five different age categories - up to 6 months, 7 to 12 months, 13 to 18 months, 19 to 28 months, and 29 to 42 months - and were judged in various sessions from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. They also were separated into male and female groups for judging. However, some of the more daring or socially minded kids broke the sex barrier by running off and joining the other side.

The children came in all shapes, sizes and colors - colors of skin, hair and clothes. The wardrobe ranged from sweat suits to tuxedos, and from sun dresses to christening and blessing gowns.

Folks came not only from Provo, Orem and the surrounding Utah County area to participate, but from all reaches of the state. While one family reported in from Sanpete County to the south, one woman breathlessly rushed in at the end of a session and announced that she had just arrived, having driven as fast as she could from Logan to insure that 15-month-old Jackie would make her second contest appearance in as many years.

Each child was accompanied by at least one parent, sometimes by both or even by a whole entourage - grandparents, personal photographer, makeshift film crew, sibling support and the like. With that total number of bodies going in and out of the judging sessions, it's no wonder that the gym reached pressure-cooker temperatures.

Maybe the heat was why 5-month-old Dallin of Provo wasn't smiling and showing off his dimples, like his mother says he usually does. However, the heat was certainly the reason why his father, like many others, was seen with beads of perspiration running down the side of his face.

Was it all worth it?

"You don't want to ask me now," he replied.

To some, the contest became a family affair, with adults being seen more than once during the day with a different child in tow. Preferring the security of his father's lap, 3-year-old Benjamin of Provo wasn't ready to recite the family schedule for the day. But his father admitted to having taken the afternoon off to accompany Benjamin, with the youngster's mother bringing his sister to a judging session earlier that morning.

After the age division judging, some children (or rather, their parents) opted for the novelty contests, which included divisions for multiple-birth babies - those who looked the most alike or the most unlike their siblings. However, most novelty participants chose the costume categories - international dress, Olympic themes, Betsy Ross, Shirley Temple, Davy Crockett, Uncle Sam, and Pebbles and Bam-Bam of "Flintstones" fame.

Some people took the novelty category seriously. For example, one woman called contest officials in a panic, claiming to have watched "The Flintstones" for two weeks straight without ever getting a glimpse of what Pebbles and Bam-Bam really look like.

The sidelines and side halls doubled as changing rooms - for changing diapers and changing clothes. One behind-the-scenes glance revealed 17-month-old Destiny of Orem being helped into her Pebbles costume by her mother, with the child chewing on the chicken bone that was supposed to be put in her hair.

To avoid another lengthy judging session and to enhance costume-judging continuity, novelty contestants were videotaped, with judges watching the tapes later in the afternoon. For me, that meant another two-plus hours of judging, watching consecutive clips of Davy Crockett and back-to-back Betsy Rosses.

Since the kids really can't speak for themselves, how do the parents justify devoting so much time and effort into preparing for and participating in such a baby contest?

"We're wondering that ourselves," said the mother of 12-month-old Jenica of Salt Lake City, as Jenica was being changed into a grass skirt for the novelty judging.

And why would I want to spend nine hours in a humid gymnasium listening to jabbering, babbling, howling and fussing - both by parents and children?

One reason was to share the enthusiasm shown by 3-year-old Ashli of Sandy who, at the end of her judging session - the last of the day, was still energetic enough to be twirling around in her white dress in front of Ricky, a neighborhood friend. Not only Ashli's enthusiasm, but that of her mother, who had entered 2-year-old Chelsi earlier that morning and decided at the last minute to drive back up to Sandy to fetch Ashli and Ricky.

"We had so much fun that we brought these two down," said Ashli's mother, adding that Chelsi in fact had not been in the best of moods in the morning.

"It was fun. We wouldn't have come back if it wasn't."

My other reasons for judging? Well, it sure beats looking at pigs and cows and sheep.

And besides, wasn't this the way Bert Parks got started?