Baby sleep aids — products such as the infamous Fisher-Price® Rock ‘n Play™ inclined sleeper — have recently come under fire after investigations revealed such devices are responsible for a sizable portion of the 3,500 infant deaths during sleep we see annually in the United States.
Fisher-Price’s Rock ‘n Play inclined sleeper, for example, was recalled due to safety concerns citing an increased risk of accidental infant suffocation. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) identified at least 90 incidents in which babies have died from suffocation while on the Rock ‘n Play inclined sleeper. Designed to keep babies laying on their backs at a 30-degree angle, the sleeper was shown to make it more difficult for babies to breathe normally.
Still, in spite of the notable death toll, the Rock ‘n Play sleeper is far from the only problematic baby sleep product. In fact, many other sleeping-related products have been blamed for causing infant deaths and injuries, including in-bed sleepers, baby boxes, sleep hammocks, and more.
But how is it that products designed to help fitful newborns sleep have turned out to be so dangerous?
The Problem With Baby Sleep Aids
It’s important to recognize that sleeping aids designed to help babies fall and stay asleep is a big, booming business, and one that has been steadily growing during the past decade. According to Marketplace, the market sector responsible for innovating, manufacturing, and selling innovative baby sleep products and devices amounts to roughly $325 Million each year.
That’s certainly big business. But the problem with baby sleeping aids just may be the concept itself.
“Babies are so bad at sleep,” writes Todd Frankle, a father of two young children who covers the topic for The Washington Post. Frankle believes the industry of baby sleeping aids was created to solve an age-old problem that is essentially unsolvable: getting babies to sleep on parents’ terms — not theirs.
For many, it’s no surprise to learn that babies sleep fitfully and wake up often. The idea that consumers can control baby sleeping behavior with several hundreds — if not thousands — of dollars’ worth of sleeping aid products is a “fantasy.” Frankle argues the baby sleep products industry is “peddling” this fantasy to vulnerable new parents who simply wish their babies would sleep better so that they, too, could get better sleep.
An additional problem is that many of these newer baby sleep aids don’t fit neatly into product categories that are regulated by the CPSC — categories such as cribs, bassinets, and other bedside sleepers. Because of this, newer products have been able to skirt around regulations altogether. Writes Frankle,
“It never occurred to me that an unproven product would be for sale in the baby aisle. I just figured some regulator — in this case, the federal agency I’d later cover, the Consumer Product Safety Commission — approved items before they hit store shelves. But that’s not how it works. In most cases, the agency is required to wait for problems to occur before investigating or pushing for a company to take action.”
Thus highlights the gulf between companies and regulators, which is a major problem. In Fisher Price’s case, a Consumer Reports investigation found that its once-popular Rock ‘n Play inclined sleeper was neither tested nor approved by pediatricians or other experts within the field. It was simply conceived, mass-produced, and sold to families across the United States. A similar story has played out with dozens of other baby sleep-aid products.
Baby sleep products come with a high price tag and little-to-no guarantee of actually working.
How Do We Fix Unsafe Sleep?
It should go without saying, but just for emphasis: One infant death is one too many.
And yet, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), death during sleep is the leading cause of accidental death among children younger than a year old in the United States.
Experts have argued time and time again that the best way for infants to sleep is also the simplest: on their backs on a flat surface. This timeless method is supported by the American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP), the CDC, and the World Health Organization (WHO), among others. Laying flat allows the infant’s airways to remain fully open.
The dangerous loophole that allowed untested and unregulated baby sleep aids to hit store shelves was recently closed by the CPSC. A bipartisan group of Congressmen and women voted 3-1 earlier this month to set new standards requiring baby sleep aids to meet the safety requirements of bassinets and cribs.
As a result of this legislative action, dozens of baby sleeping products may be effectively banned or pulled from the market. The companies that design, manufacture, and sell such products have 1 year to get their products to meet safe-sleep standards.
In the meantime, parents should remain vigilant and always consider the gap between what products claim to offer — a sound night’s sleep for both infants and parents — and what they actually deliver: Risk of suffocation and, ultimately, unnecessary and avoidable infant deaths.