Unsafe at Almost Any Angle

News of the latest glitch in product safety sent shudders through every parent: Inclined sleepers have been discovered to be life-threatening to babies, liable to cause accidental suffocation.

Fisher-Price’s Rock ’n Plays, Kids II and Dorel Juvenile Group were recalled in recent months. Now we are told that even those models not yet officially recalled should not be used.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) warned that any sleeping device that allows babies to sleep at an angle greater than 10 degrees should not be used. Most inclined sleepers reach about 30 degrees. Because it will take months to rewrite the federal law to restrict incline to 10 degrees (effectively outlawing the device), the agency has resorted to this “stop now” tactic.

To be clear, the CPSC announcement was not a recall. Rather, it was an emergency advisory that the inclined sleepers on the market are unsafe at almost any angle. The number of infant fatalities in the sleepers has risen sharply from 40 in April to 73. Further tragedies can be avoided by simply avoiding the inclined sleepers.

What is especially disturbing is that the safety issue did not arise just now, or even when the recalls began earlier in the year. For several years, the American Academy of Pediatrics has been saying that inclined sleepers are unsafe.

The reason being, as a recent study by University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences researchers determined, is that the tilt makes it easy for babies to roll into a facedown position in which suffocation can occur.

In fact, reported infant deaths did not immediately trigger a recall. The CPSC was aware of the problem for at least a year before the Rock ’n Play recall. But its researchers were unable to ascertain with any certitude that the sleepers were at fault. Mere suspicion, albeit widespread and backed by expert opinion, was not sufficient to set the costly process of mandatory recall into operation. Warnings were issued, but no recalls.

As late as last April, Fischer-Price was still in denial. Only more deaths and more research pointing to the inclined sleepers as the cause forced them to acknowledge that their product was unsafe and call it back.

How Fisher-Price got the CPSC and ASTM International — an organization that sets voluntary safety standards for consumer products — to allow their invention to be marketed and endorsed in the first place despite the concerns is a story in itself, though space does not allow going into the details here. Suffice it to say that the company took advantage of a regulatory loophole to sell a product of dubious safety. And even when concern rose — and accidental deaths along with it — Fisher-Price resisted criticism.

The company’s reply to Consumer Reports, which conducted an investigation that was also damaging to the product’s safety reputation, was platitudinous and mendacious:

“The loss of a child is a devastating tragedy. We will continue to do all we can to ensure that parents and caregivers have the information necessary to create a safe sleep environment for infants.”

Fisher-Price confirmed to CR that the company was aware of the fatalities, but did not believe that “any deaths have been caused by the product,” citing “the many situations where a medical/health condition was identified as the cause of death, and/or those in which the product was clearly used in a manner contrary to the safety warnings and instructions.” In other words, blaming the parents.

As for the Consumer Product Safety Commission, it is fair to say that it did not do its job.

“In cases like these, where the product is on the market and there have been incidents associated with it, it’s very difficult to understand why the enforcement agency with jurisdiction over this product wouldn’t take action,” said Rachel Weintraub, legislative director and general counsel of the Consumer Federation of America. “When we know there are products that are posing risks and causing fatalities, that product in almost every case needs to be taken off the market.”

To be sure, the agency cannot be alarmist, banning products on hysterical claims and flimsy evidence. But in this case, regulators were overly cautious, allowing the manufacturer, a giant company with persuasive representatives, to influence its decision.

How should babies be placed to sleep? What do the “experts” say? Only what every parent has done for generations, long before the advent of health conglomerates, university research and government regulators:

They recommend that babies sleep “on a flat surface in a crib or bassinet. Prolonged sleep in bouncers or infant car seats is also not recommended.”

The advice is astonishingly obvious: just the way parents have set their little ones to sleep before the big children’s product companies invented a “better” way.

Parents who felt frustrated with tired, colicky infants who refused to go to sleep were understandably susceptible to the promise of an easier time.

But as we know now, they should have been wary. Even if they had not read the expert criticism of the sleepers — and who has time to review the debate over every new product? — such promises of easier parenthood courtesy of the dazzling innovations of technology need to be met with automatic skepticism.