The Rise and Fall of the Fisher-Price Rock ‘n Play


Child safety Fisher-Price Rock 'n Play

A Story of Corporate Irresponsibility

Young parents undoubtedly have one of the most stressful and confusing jobs in the world. From breakfast to playtime to bedtime, there are a million decisions parents must make about their infants’ and toddlers’ lives every day. This is ever more complicated by the constant barrage of advertisements trying to sell the latest advancements in childcare technology. Just 25 years ago, much of the American public thought that classical music was the key to unlocking your baby’s true intellectual potential; with so many varied perspectives on early youth development, it is impossible to predict what the next big parenting trend will be.

This begs the question: how can parents be certain that the products they buy for their children are safe? While the logic behind Baby Mozart may have been flawed, it is hard to argue that the fad caused any actual harm. Unfortunately, this is not the case for every ill-conceived baby craze, and parents must be wary of the lack of regulation in certain childcare industries. One sober reminder of this truth is the recent saga of “inclined sleepers” (like the Fisher-Price Rock ‘n Play), and their regulatory battle with the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).

An inclined sleeper is a specific style of infant sleep surface occasionally recommended for babies who struggle with acid reflux while sleeping. They have been in available to purchase since 2009, marketed as cozy inclined nests where babies can safely and comfortably sleep the whole night. This could not be further from the truth. Over the past decade, dozens of young children have tragically lost their lives while using inclined sleepers, to the shock and devastation of their unsuspecting parents.

Is the Manufacturer Really at Fault?

The primary safety hazard presented by the Fisher-Price Rock ‘n Play and other similar products is that of positional asphyxiation. It is dangerously easy for an infant’s airway to become blocked in an inclined position due to their lack of neck strength and motor skills. Simply leaning too far forward can create a situation in which a baby begins to suffocate and cannot bring their head upright again. No young parent could be reasonably expected to foresee this risk without a prior awareness of the likelihood of such injuries. As such, the manufacturers and vendors of baby products bear a certain heightened responsibility to promote attention to any relevant safety risks inherent to their products.

In the case of Fisher-Price, the company did quite the opposite. Most parents would assume that any product on the market has likely met a reliable standard of safety testing and risk mitigation, perhaps commonly regarding the testimony of licensed pediatricians as a reasonable source of expertise. However, a 2019 Washington Post investigation found that when the Fisher-Price Rock ‘n Play hit the market in 2009, it had not undergone any credible scrutiny whatsoever. The very concept of the inclined sleeper was borne out of mere anecdotal advice and outdated medical recommendations. Fisher-Price justified its merit using a 2004 newsletter from the North American Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology, and Nutrition that advised against allowing babies to lie on flat surfaces when they are suffering from reflux. Even at the time, this newsletter relied on treatment guidelines from 2001 that had since been revised to include further evidence reversing the recommendation.

By 2010, the Society – and the American pediatric community – held a common understanding that leaving a baby in an inclined position poses a far greater risk to the child’s health than a flat surface does.

Despite clear dissent within the medical community, inclined sleepers soon became available to the public via numerous trusted retailers. Fisher-Price consulted only the expertise of Gary Deegear, a former family doctor and longtime associate of the company whose medical license has since expired. Mr. Deegear was happy to bolster Fisher-Price’s claims about the Rock ‘n Play and affirm the safety of the device despite his lack of relevant pediatric practice. He greenlit the product’s release, referencing various studies on the topic of infant sleep health with no other relation to the specific case (or position) at hand. Early questioning of its safety qualifications fell on deaf ears as Fisher-Price paved the way for other firms’ entry into the inclined sleeper market. Before long, these dangerous beds became regular fixtures in the homes of many young families.

A Hope for Accountability

Over a decade after its initial release the Fisher-Price Rock ‘n Play has become the center of a dark regulatory scandal, as reports of over 90 infant deaths have been linked to the model of sleep device that it confidently pioneered. This alarming trend incited the launch of a congressional investigation into the safety of inclined sleep products on August 13, 2019. For well over a year, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform dug into the records and history of several involved entities, culminating in a formal hearing on June 7, 2021. The results of the investigation concluded that Fisher-Price and their parent company Mattel “put profits over people,” in the words of Committee Chairwoman Carolyn B. Maloney. The Committee found a disturbing pattern of the corporation ignoring injury and fatality reports related to their product, and instead presenting skewed or misrepresented safety data and medical recommendations to justify the continuation of their sales. For far too long, U.S. regulatory policy allowed this behavior to carry on completely unchecked.

Finally, the CPSC acted and on June 2, 2021, the commission voted 3-1 in favor of expanding the scope of current regulatory measures to include inclined sleepers. While this is certainly a big step forward for both safe parenting and consumer safety in general, the road to get there has elucidated some serious shortcomings of the current U.S. regulatory system. This raises the original question: when new products can be so slow to receive safety testing and approval, how can parents be confident that they will be safe for their children?

Advice and Lessons Learned

While there is no surefire way to test everything, there are some resources and recommendations that can make it easier to discern reputable products from their less-vetted cousins. If you are looking for some simple ways to be more conscious of your kids’ safety, consider the following:

  • Check the CPSC’s website. While the commission may be somewhat limited in its enforcement power, it is a reliable resource for safety data and information. The CPSC releases regular newsletters as well as alerts for product recalls. Paying attention to the commission’s news is not only a good way to hear product warnings first; it will also give you a broader awareness of the types of defective items and dangerous activities that most commonly result in injuries.
  • Consumer Reports is another great source of reading material if you want to be more informed about the products you use in your life. Their diligent research teams perform independent investigations of countless household products. In this case, the oversight is not just limited to safety testing. They regularly publish articles featuring product quality reviews and side-by-side comparisons as well. The tests and reviews are organized by product category, so it makes the website an easy, navigable tool to look up and research any upcoming purchases.
  • Double-check any manufacturer’s claims against the most current scientific research available. Always remember that a company’s job is not necessarily to make the best product, but to convince you as the consumer that they make the best product. As such, you cannot always trust claims about safety or efficacy. The resources above are useful in many cases, but particularly in situations involving medical matters or very young children it is a good idea to consult a relevant professional before making big decisions.
  • Have an emergency plan just in case. Some injuries may be unavoidable, but preparedness can make all the difference in your response. If your children are old enough, discuss some basic emergency protocols with them. Everyone in your family should know how to responsibly handle a stressful crisis. You should also know which hospital in your area offers the best care. For guidance on making that decision, find more information here.

In the unfortunate event that you or a loved one does experience an injury related to a product defect or malfunction, you always have somewhere to turn to find justice. The dedicated legal team at Regan Zambri & Long will fight to restore your quality of life. Contact us today for a free case evaluation.