ATLANTA (AP) _ New parents may not give a lot of thought to their infant carriers, those ubiquitous baby-haulers for shopping malls and restaurants. But a baby can get hurt - even die - if they're not used properly.

At least 26 infants nationwide have died in carrier accidents since 1986, most frequently by becoming entangled in the restraining straps, a federal report said Thursday.

Other babies were smothered when carriers toppled over on beds.

''When you have a child restrained in an infant carrier or seat, the child may appear to be in a safe environment. But infants should never be left unattended, even when it appears they're safely strapped in,'' said Susan Good of the Centers for Disease Control, which issued the report.

The report covered only infant carriers - reclining seats usually made of sturdy plastic - not bike seats or papoose packs. Car seats used as carriers were included, but deaths in traffic accidents weren't counted.

The most important thing for parents to remember, she said, is ''using the infant carrier in the context which the manufacturer has recommended, and that the instructions be read and carefully followed every time.''

The deaths included:

-A 4-month-old hanged on a carrier's shoulder strap after a dining room chair on which it had been placed overturned.

-Five babies suffocated after infant carriers that had been placed on beds toppled over, pinning the children face-down on spreads or pillows.

-Two infants, left strapped in carriers in cars, died after siblings started fires and firefighters had difficulty getting the babies out.

In each case, the children had been left unattended.

''Parents need to use their brains too,'' said Kim Carranza, mother of an 8-month-old in the Atlanta suburb of Tucker. ''A product is only as good as somebody who's going to use it right.''

''I have about four of them,'' said Karen Goodwin of nearby Lawrenceville, who has a 4-year-old child and a 2-month-old baby. ''I have not had any problems with them. But you do have to really pay attention and not leave them.''

''It's not a baby sitter,'' said Maura Davis, spokeswoman for the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association. ''Parents have to be supervising when it's used.

''It seems like the accidents that have occurred are more a function of product misuse.''

The 26 deaths were reported to the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission between January 1986 and October 1991. Others have almost certainly gone unreported, Ms. Good said.

''All products do have some risks, even though they're designed to be safe,'' she said.