Three years ago, Dr. Bradley Thach, a professor of paediatrics at Washington University in St. Louis, published findings that had the potential to upend nurseries across the nation, and perhaps save some lives too.
In reviewing data from the Consumer Products Safety Commission, Thach concluded that crib bumpers – the padding wrapped around the inside of a crib that often matches the bedding – were killing babies. In a 10-year period beginning in 1995, he found 27 suffocation deaths involving bumper pads, and he theorized that many more might have occurred because of inconsistencies in the data.
“Because bumpers can cause death, we conclude that they should not be used,” he warned.
The Consumer Products Safety Commission initially ignored the findings.
Last summer, it reached the same conclusion as a trade group representing product manufacturers, which asserted that other factors, like a crib crowded with pillows or babies sleeping on their stomachs, might have been a factor in those deaths, rather than the bumpers. As a result, most parents remained unaware of the debate over the safety of crib bumpers.
Now, prompted by consumer advocates and news reports highlighting potential dangers, the commission has reversed itself and decided to take a deeper look at crib bumpers as part of a broader regulatory crackdown on the hazards of an extensive line of baby sleep products that have been blamed for more injuries and deaths.
In December, the commission approved the first new mandatory standards for cribs in nearly two decades.
The new rules banned existing designs for drop-side cribs, which have been blamed for entrapping and killing at least 32 babies since 2000, and required more rigorous testing on all cribs.
The crackdown on baby sleep products was brought about by a confluence of factors.
After an influx of contaminated products, including toys from China, Congress passed the Consumer Products Safety Improvement Act of 2008 which gave the commission – long criticized as toothless – more money and authority.
As part of the new law, Congress mandated that the commission issue mandatory standards for more than a dozen baby products, including strollers, bassinets, high chairs and cribs, replacing voluntary guidelines that had been the norm.
News reports documenting baby deaths from unsafe products, particularly in The Chicago Tribune, put additional pressure on the commission.
For all the attention on defective products, the majority of deaths of sleeping infants are caused by suffocation from pillows and other bedding that crowds a crib.
A commission report from July found that 531 deaths from 1992 to May 2008 were associated with pillows or cushions, an average of 35 deaths a year.
In a vast majority of the cases, the babies were placed to sleep on their stomachs. In half the cases, the infants were put to sleep on top of a cushion or pillow.
There also remains some debate about what is safe for babies and what isn’t.
Several small manufacturers offer products that promise to reduce the incidence of sudden infant death syndrome, though medical experts and regulators remain dubious.
Indeed, the FDA says products that claim to prevent SIDS would be considered medical devices and therefore would require agency approval.
Manufacturers of baby products, meanwhile, have challenged allegations that their products are unsafe. Michael Dwyer, executive director of the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association, said critics frequently claimed that a product was unsafe based on emotion, whereas his members relied on science-based facts.
After federal authorities warned parents not to buy sleep positioners, the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association suggested that parents could continue using them, as long as they used them properly.
And the association disputes the Thach’s findings on crib bumpers.
Dwyer said the association commissioned its own study and found that it was often unclear what caused the babies’ death since there were other things crowded in the cribs, like pillows or soft toys.
The association recommends that crib bumpers be firm, rather than pillow like, and be removed from the crib when a baby is able to stand.
“Whereas bumpers may have been mentioned as being present in the crib, we really challenge whether the bumper was the cause,” he said.