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The thousands of images of Fisher-Price’s Rock ’n Play sleeper posted on Instagram include many of babies snuggled serenely in the cloth-covered cradle, free of its harness and surrounded by blankets and stuffed animals.
To sleep-starved parents, the photos and videos seemed to underscore the Rock ’n Play’s ability to lull fussy infants into a peaceful slumber. But the posts also suggest something else: that the risks long associated with the sleeper did not register with many consumers.
Doctors, safety groups, and now several lawsuits say Fisher-Price and its parent company, Mattel, should have done more to fix that.
When Fisher-Price agreed last week to recall all 4.7 million Rock ’n Plays on the market, it said it was not at fault for the more than 30 infant deaths the Consumer Product Safety Commission had linked to the sleeper.
Instead, the company said the reported deaths stemmed from the sleeper being “used contrary to safety warnings and instructions” to buckle babies in with the harness and avoid putting other items in the sleeper. (The safety commission advises that it should not be used once children reached 3 months or show signs of being able to roll over.)
But Fisher-Price’s marketing materials for the product had long included phrases like “baby can sleep at a comfy incline all night long” that were at odds with pediatricians’ longstanding recommendation that infants sleep on flat surfaces without restraints.
Consumer safety watchdogs criticized Fisher-Price for waiting years to initiate a recall after first hearing about suffocations linked to the sleeper. Instead, they said, the company let the government issue vague warnings that got little attention.
“This is just not a safe way for babies to sleep,” said Nancy Cowles, the executive director of Kids in Danger, a nonprofit organization focused on the safety of products for children.
Fisher-Price said in a statement that the Rock ’n Play had “always met all applicable regulations and safety standards” in the United States and that it “included very specific and conspicuous product usage instructions and warnings that we urged parents and caregivers to read and follow carefully.” The company also said it had shared safety information about the sleeper with the government commission “from the moment it was introduced.”
Fisher-Price’s marketing claims are among the issues cited in lawsuits now being brought against the company.
On Thursday, Samantha Drover-Mundy and Zachary Mundy, the parents of a 12-week-old girl who died in September after a few minutes in a Rock ’n Play, sued Fisher-Price, Mattel and Amazon, where the girl’s grandmother bought the sleeper, in federal court in New York.
Fisher-Price, the suit says, gave Rock ’n Plays to online reviewers after it “determined that the most effective form of advertising for its baby-related products was through word-of-mouth and through ‘mommy bloggers.’” The company’s marketing language promoted “dangerous features as selling points,” emphasizing the product’s soft padding and angled positioning, the suit says.
The family also accuses Fisher-Price of lobbying government officials to skirt regulations that could have blocked it from being sold, an issue explored by Consumer Reports in a recent investigation that helped prompt the Rock ’n Play recall.
The safety commission is now investigating all so-called inclined sleepers, which 26 companies sold in the United States as of August. At least one report has been filed linking another inclined sleeper, the Ingenuity Moonlight by Kids II, to a child’s death.
Inclined sleepers prop babies up at an angle. Many parents say they help soothe infants with gastroesophageal reflux, which can cause spitting up and irritability. But the safety commission said it had received more than 700 reports since 2005 about injuries associated with the sleepers. There were at least eight recalls before mid-2018 linking inclined sleep products to concerns about strangulation, suffocation, falls and entrapment.
In 2012, the commission and the Food and Drug Administration warned customers to avoid sleep positioners for babies. By then, such products had been linked to at least 13 deaths over 15 years, officials said.
About 3,500 infants die in the United States each year from sleep-related causes like sudden infant death syndrome, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. That number declined in the 1990s after a national campaign to raise awareness about safe-sleeping techniques for infants.
The pediatricians’ group objects to infant-sleep products that are set at an incline or require restraints. Babies should rest on their backs on a firm, bare sleep surface without soft bedding, the group says.
The Rock ’n Play, created in 2009, never met those guidelines. But it quickly drew rave reviews. The price — $40 for some models — made it attractive to parents who could not afford to skip work after being kept up all night by colicky infants, one baby sleep consultant told NPR this month.
But problems soon emerged.
Pediatricians and parents said some babies who spent time in the sleeper developed torticollis, a condition that twists the head to one side. Others said it was flattening parts of some infants’ skulls. In 2013, Fisher-Price recalled 800,000 Rock ’n Plays after complaints about mold that could cause respiratory illnesses and infections.
But there were more serious concerns. Consumer Reports linked the Rock ’n Play to 32 deaths, including one in 2011.
A 2012 complaint described a 5-month-old girl falling out of a Rock ’n Play despite being restrained and then dangling upside down from the harness. A complaint last year said a 6-month-old boy who weighed less than the 25-pound maximum set by Fisher-Price had died after rolling over in the sleeper.
Nonetheless, long after authorities in Canada and Australia had blocked it from being marketed as a sleeper, the Rock ’n Play remained popular in the United States.
Anna Weiss, a child and family therapist in New York, described it as “one of those things that almost every parent swears by.” Her daughter Emery, now 9 months old, used it “all the time in the beginning,” she said.
The recall was the first Ms. Weiss had heard about the suffocation concerns.
“It’s very surprising, the talk about flat heads was all over the place when I was looking at products,” she said. “The rolling over didn’t come up anywhere.”
In August, Ann Marie Buerkle, the safety commission’s acting chairwoman, responded to a congresswoman’s inquiry about inclined sleepers with a letter saying the agency had “ratcheted up the resources and senior staff attention being devoted to” the products. Ms. Buerkle cited a 2018 consumer alert that said the agency knew of deaths associated with the sleepers but did not name specific products or companies.
“The warning wasn’t written to gather attention,” said Ms. Cowles of Kids in Danger. “No parent ever calls the Rock ’n Play an ‘inclined sleep product’.”
This month, before the recall, Mattel worked with the safety commission to issue a new warning about the sleeper. Safety experts say consumers pay far less attention to warnings than they do to recalls.
Joseph Martyak, a safety commission spokesman, said alerts were useful.
“It’s better to give people a heads-up in these situations,” he said. Deciding on whether a recall is needed “takes time,” he said.
“The agency has to get the company to agree to the voluntary recall for it to happen,” he added.
Soon after the Rock ’n Play was introduced, Natasha Burgert, a pediatrician in Kansas City, Mo., began to warn parents against it, often unsuccessfully.
“Most families believed that since the product was from a reliable company, our concerns as pediatricians were seen as alarmist and overzealous,” she said. “The box specifically suggested ways of safe use and parenting blogs galore were touting its utility and ‘lifesaving’ sleep help.”
Stuart Brazell, an actress and blogger in Los Angeles, described her experience with the Rock ’n Play as “amazing.” She began using it the day she brought her son, Asher, home from the hospital last year.
Ms. Brazell, who has 157,000 followers on Instagram, said she heard that Fisher-Price was seeking mothers for a Rock ’n Play social media campaign. She signed up through an agency that links so-called social media influencers to brands.
The agency gave her specific instructions for her post — the sleeper had to rest on a level surface and her son had to be buckled into the harness — and approved the image and caption before she published it in November, she said. The post earned more than 4,000 likes.
“The power of social media is major for moms,” she said. “A lot of the time, we’re stuck at home and sometimes the only contact we have with other people is online.”
Asher is now 9 months old. Ms. Brazell stopped using the Rock ’n Play when he began to roll over.
“We kept the Rock ’n Play in the garage for baby No. 2 if we had another one,” she said, “but I’m completely torn now as to what to do.”
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