When my son was born, my sister gave me three pieces of baby gear: A flat bassinet that a doctor approved as safe for sleep, and a bouncy chair and a swing that were not. At first, I was diligent about only putting my baby to sleep in the bassinet, on his back as I'd been told by the nurses at the hospital. But as the weeks wore on, I got desperate and strapped him into the inclined seat of the swing. I did up all the buckles and turned the machine on. As my baby was lulled to sleep I lulled myself to sleep with a comforting but flawed thought: They wouldn't make these if they weren't safe.
That is why I feel for all the parents who are angry about the recent recall of 4.7 million Rock 'n Play sleepers. Because when something works for us, we don't want to give it up, break it down and send it back to Mattel. We just want our babies to sleep.
But of course, we also want them to be safe. And that's something that parents and pediatricians can agree on, even as they disagree about the Rock n' Play and other sleep products for babies.
When the Rock 'n Play recall was announced last Friday, countless parents commented on news articles, vowing to keep using their Rock 'n Play and suggesting the recall was unnecessary, and that the more than 30 infant deaths could have been prevented if parents had used the restraints (the CPSC noted in its recall notice that some of the babies were, in fact, buckled in).
That's why Dr. Diane Arnaout, a pediatrician at Cook Children's in Fort Worth took to Facebook to speak on behalf of the medical providers who caution parents against using such products. "Listen, we pediatricians are tired parents, too," she wrote. "I'm not here to judge you or your day-by-day struggle to survive. But babies die. We don't want your baby to die."
Why the Rock n' Play still has fans
As Alexis Dubief, a baby sleep consultant and author of Precious Little Sleep: The Complete Baby Sleep Guide for Modern Parents, recently explained on NPR's weekend edition, the Rock 'n Play became so popular because it's cheap and it works—as many parents who use it nightly still attest. Babies sleep well in it, even if they are not sleeping in what pediatricians say is a safe environment or position.
Dubief wants to know if how the "relative risk of the Rock 'n Play compare[s] to the crib or, what often is the fallback position, co-sleeping with an adult" and many parents are echoing her question in internet comment sections.
We know that in less than a decade, 32 babies have died while sleeping in Rock 'n Plays. But in that same time period, we know that the number of babies dying of suffocation, in general, has been on the rise, as noted in a study published in the journal Pediatrics last year. In 2015 alone more than 1,100 babies died this way, and in most of these cases, these babies were sleeping with an adult.
Do rigid sleep rules make babies safer?
At the same time that researchers were noting this increase in infant suffocation deaths, parents were also being inundated with safe sleep information. In the last decade there has been a sustained push to reduce co-sleeping rates, get babies sleeping on their backs in cribs, and educate parents about removing blankets, pillows, toys and sleep positioners from cribs, but researchers note that despite all these efforts infant deaths continue.
"Simply telling people that the crib is the only option for your child in practicality is not a reasonable response," says Dubief, who explains that parents are educated about these recommendations, but when we're exhausted and suffering, we do what we have to do to make it through the night.
"What happens is we fall back into kind of desperation-based, unsafe behaviors. It's not a logical decision. It's a desperation decision. And that's where we end up co-sleeping—in many cases, co-sleeping on a couch or a chair," Dubief explains.
Falling asleep on a couch or in an armchair is even riskier than sharing an adult bed with a baby, because there are all kinds of places for a baby's face to get stuck, and it's easy for a baby to end up in a position where they asphyxiate or rebreathe their own exhaled carbon dioxide.
"Highly risky situations occur when we're desperately sleep deprived and it's 2, 3, 4 in the morning and we've been up every 45, 60, you know, minutes for the entire evening," says Dubief.
Most parents who've lived it know how true this is, and those who haven't should consider themselves privileged.
The Rock n' Play was popular because it worked, and because it was cheap
In order to not have those highly risky nights Dubief describes, parents need one of two things: Support or the money to buy it.
The Rock 'n Play (most models of which sold for less than $60) cost less than most cribs and was accessible for parents who don't have access to things like postpartum doulas, night nurses, the SNOO or even paid leave.
When you have to be back at work when your child is mere weeks old, you're going to be even more desperate for sleep than someone who is able to stay home and live by the old "sleep when the baby sleeps" rule.
Bottom Line: While we do need government agencies to protect babies from unsafe products and for manufacturers to do a better job of ensuring that products marketed to new parents as baby sleepers are safe, what we really need is an understanding that support for vulnerable postpartum parents should not be seen as a luxury but as a necessity.
When I strapped my baby into that swing I knew the ABCs of safe sleep (A is for Alone, B is for on the Back, and C is for in a Crib) but all I wanted was some Zs. I got some sleep and I got very lucky.
You might also like:
- 10 safe sleep guidelines every parent, grandparent and caregiver should know
- *Everyone* needs to know safe infant sleep practices—from Grandma to the babysitter
- Why Consumer Reports wants the Rock 'n Play recalled