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Parents Beware: Manufacturers’ Safety Claims May Not Measure Up

The Fisher-Price Rock ‘n Play Sleeper Recall and Recommended Sleeping Methods for Baby

baby sleeping in recalled Fisher-Price Rock 'n Play

“It would never cross anyone’s mind that it wasn’t tested for safety.”

This is the quote from Nancy Cowle, a consumer advocate at Kids in Danger, that hit me like a lightning bolt when I read this Washington Post investigation of the Fisher-Price recall of the “Rock ‘n Play” sleeper. The report is damning. The devices were marketed in the U.S. as a safe option for fussy babies to sleep at an incline, a popular word-of-mouth recommendation for babies with reflux but whose science is not well-documented. Over 4.7 million were sold in the U.S., including one to a family member of mine who excitedly gifted it to our family as a possible solution for our fussy napper. In the ten years since its introduction, more than 30 documented deaths have been linked to infants sleeping in the device. The product has now been recalled  (as well as a similar model from manufacturer KIDS II) but many questions remain: Did the manufacturer do enough to research the design? What regulations could have prevented these tragedies? And what will be implemented now? The Post piece explores these, but we also need another conversation on the tremendous pressure on caregivers to choose safe products for children among a dizzying array of options.

The safest place for a baby to sleep is on his/her back, in an empty crib (no blankets, pillows, or stuffed animals), ideally in the same room as a parent. These steps are linked to a much lower rate of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and infant suffocation. Since the National Institute for Health launched the Safe to Sleep campaign (previously called Back to Sleep) in 1994, SIDS deaths have declined 50 percent while rates of back-sleeping have increased. The campaign works with pediatricians and other medical professionals as well as community leaders to communicate the basics of safe sleep and connect families with resources to help address issues they face.

If the message is out in the world about safe sleep, then why was the Rock ‘n Play – which uses an incline, and not a flat surface – such a hit?

At the end of the day, parents face a tremendous information barrier – there is so much we are constantly learning, stakes are high, information takes a long time to reach all parents, and, oh yeah – new parents are tired and desperate. A product which claims to be safe and solve parents’ problems is going to fly off the shelf, particularly when it comes from a brand that grandparents remember from their own child-rearing days.

Products for children frequently fall into a classic “information asymmetry,” an economics term which describes when one party has more information about a transaction than the other does, which creates an imbalance in the transaction. In this case, the manufacturer sold a product with claims about safety, which parents may have assumed meant it had been rigorously tested and measured against a standard; only the manufacturer knew the extent of the testing, and did not disclose that strict regulations did not exist. Parents took this marketing as a seal of approval among a head-spinning array of toys and products. It’s similar to how the term “all natural” in food marketing actually has no legal definition – but it piggybacks on the strict standards of the term “organic” to generate interest from health-conscious consumers.

To stay up on the latest advice and safety suggestions, parents need to have time and energy to spare (which we know is not the case when so many families face income pressures) – and even then, the barriers can be tremendous. A study from the American Academy of Pediatrics found that 2 out of 5 print ads showing nurseries did not align with the nationally-known safe sleep recommendations. Parents may even get conflicting advice from different experts; my son’s pediatrician was quick to advise us on safe sleep in the crib, while a lactation consultant was more comfortable with the idea of bedsharing to promote nursing, as long as we took certain precautions.

Infant and child deaths are, thankfully, rare in the grand scheme but are devastating to families and communities which experience such a loss. We all have a role to play in minimizing the hazards to young children.

As organizations and individual citizens, we can continue to call on our policymakers for sound regulations to govern the products that serve our children through the Consumer Product Safety Commission and hold companies accountable when they do not live up to the standards our children deserve.

As an organization, ICS will continue to share research-driven evidence which empowers families to make the right choices for their families; we recognize that sometimes statistics and stories about negative outcomes have the unintended side effect of creating panic when what families really need is confidence to make the right decisions.

We encourage all caregivers to speak to their child’s pediatrician and consult expert resources such as the American Academic of Pediatrics in buying safe toys and furniture and using these safe sleep tips. Remember: child safety advice can change quickly as new research comes out, so always read up on the latest standards before using secondhand items that people may thoughtfully give to you.

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