Much of early parenthood is new and frightening, so it’s a comfort when all the gear is old and broken in. Acquiring all of your friends’ used baby crap is an act of reciprocal altruism: you are providing them with a conveniently located recycling station, staffed by a huggable infant, and they are mitigating your financially catastrophic decision to breed. You’re also outsourcing your consumer research. A friend you love and trust—a parent with seniority—has road-tested the items in question, vetting them for safety and functionality. Two years apart, my daughter and son spent their first weeks sleeping on a desk in a Moses basket handed down to me by my friend J.; my friend R. donated her baby tub; between them, S. and T. gifted four baby-wearing devices. My kids sat in other kids’ car seats and swung in other kids’ swings. When my husband and I bought a brand-new stroller, it felt like a networking failure—if only we’d fostered stronger social bonds, a Caboose S Too Sit and Stand would have appeared at our doorstep for free.
Of everything handed down to us, no single product surpassed the cult status, or near-ubiquity, of the Fisher-Price Rock ’n Play Sleeper. My friend C. gave me hers right before my son was born, but I could have got one from G. or K. or A. or L. The Rock ’n Play is everywhere, and so are its evangelists. It’s a lightweight, collapsible sleeper in which the baby’s head rests at an upward incline, cushioned on either side. In the years since the Rock ’n Play hit the market, in 2009, any new parent or parent-to-be would have been able to find thousands of comments online attesting to its unsurpassed soporific qualities—its magical ability to restore the sanity and REM patterns of sleep-starved caregivers.
On Friday, Fisher-Price recalled all of its Rock ’n Plays, and stated that “consumers should immediately stop using the product.” The recall affected approximately 4.7 million Rock ’n Plays sold to date, or about one for every eight babies born in the U.S. during that time. Fisher-Price’s decision followed an investigation by Consumer Reports’ Rachel Rabkin Peachman that linked the Rock ’n Play to at least thirty-two infant deaths since 2011, and a subsequent statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics calling the Rock ’n Play “deadly.” Its incline and plush fabric violate modern safe-sleep rules, which call for babies to lie flat on their backs on a flat, firm, wide surface; the product’s design leaves infants vulnerable to positional asphyxia (in which the baby’s head falls forward or to the side, compressing his airway) and to smothering, especially for older infants, who might attempt to roll over in the sleeper. “As soon as I looked at the product, I was shocked that it was ever even marketed at all,” Peachman told me. “It runs counter to every safe-sleep guideline we have.”
The story of how and why the Rock ’n Play was marketed as a safe sleeper is a depressingly straightforward tale of industry muscle and bureaucratic complicity. As Peachman explains in her Consumer Reports piece, Fisher-Price originally categorized the Rock ’n Play as a bassinet. But, in 2010, when the Consumer Product Safety Commission began revising its mandatory standards for cribs and bassinets, Fisher-Price’s parent company asked for, and was granted, an exemption for sleep products with an incline of more than ten degrees. The C.P.S.C.’s decision here was mind-flippingly bizarre: the thing that made the product unsafe was the same thing that excused it from safety standards. Meanwhile, Fisher-Price was permitted to continue marketing the Rock ’n Play much as if it were a tightly regulated crib or bassinet. “Safe for overnight sleep,” the packaging on one model says. “Baby can sleep at a comfortable incline all night long!”
A paradox of the Rock ’n Play, and of infant “sleep aides” and “sleep guides” in general, is that, to some extent, these products are intended to solve a problem that should not be solved. No infant should sleep all night long, on an incline of any degree, because she needs to eat every few hours; what’s more, a baby who sleeps poorly when flat on her back—which is to say, many or most babies—is also a baby who is at lower risk for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS. (SIDS deaths fell precipitously after 1992, when the A.A.P. issued its flat-on-your-back sleep guidelines.) “Babies are not supposed to sleep through the night,” Rachel Moon, the chair of the A.A.P. Task Force on SIDS, told me. “Putting a baby on her stomach, and all these things to make babies ‘sleep better,’ quote-unquote, are dangerous because they make babies sleep more deeply, and, with SIDS, when they sleep more deeply, they can’t wake up.” Moon added that infant sleep is regarded as much more of a crisis in the U.S. than in any other country, due to a lack of both paid parental leave and extended-family support networks. “When they have to get up in the morning and function for work, of course mothers and fathers get desperate for sleep,” she said.
Even though so many of my friends’ kids had slept like champs in the Rock ’n Play, I knew that I shouldn’t leave my son in there for long periods of time, and, on some deeper, unspoken level, I knew that I shouldn’t put him in it at all. Those safe-sleep guidelines were branded on my brain. But should and shouldn’t can take on weird new gradations of meaning during the fog of early parenthood. When my son was six weeks old, he was hospitalized for three days with a fever that settled into a bad, persistent cold. He was horribly congested for months; during that period, I doubt he ever slept flat on his back for more than an hour or two at a time, because sinus pressure and nasal drip would leave him coughing and struggling. Where he really slept was in his stroller, or his bouncer, or his carrier, or on top of me or his dad, or in the Rock ’n Play. He wasn’t a fussy baby—he wanted to sleep, and I wanted to help him. No matter how shattered a new parent might be, her metrics of risk assessment can remain largely rational: she may be weighing the roughly 0.0000068-per-cent chance that her child might die in a Rock ’n Play versus the extremely high chance that her child will not sleep unless placed in a Rock ’n Play.
It falls, then, to regulators to make the “irrational” decision—to be, in some sense, unreasonably cautious. The onus is on them to commit to absolute standards of safety. (In 1994, for example, the C.P.S.C. worked with manufacturers to eliminate drawstrings from the necks and hoods of children’s clothing; it took this step after the accidental strangulation deaths of twelve children were linked to drawstrings, over a nine-year period.) In protecting well-informed parents from reasoning their way toward risk-taking, bodies like the C.P.S.C. are also protecting the parents who may have no idea that they’re taking a risk on a product at all—because, say, they’re standing in a Walmart or Target and looking at a presumably well-regulated product by a household-name brand that says, in bold letters, “Safe for overnight sleep.”
On Facebook and elsewhere, it’s already easy to find parents who are planning to hang on to their Rock ’n Plays, or to search for them on the secondhand market, despite the recall. They apparently see their one-in-146,875 odds as an acceptable risk. “We’ve gotten complaints from parents in terms of not understanding their needs, because the baby sleeps better in the product,” Moon told me. “They felt that, before we push to take something off the market, we need to make sure to offer something similar.” And they may well find it, as long as “infant inclined sleep products” remain on the market. As of this writing, the Kids II Ingenuity Moonlight Rocking Sleeper, a Rock ’n Play peer that Consumer Reports has linked to four infant deaths, is still available for purchase. (“Rocking legs, soothing projections, and gentle vibrations make a good night’s sleep simple,” the marketing language reads.)
One afternoon, not long after my son was hospitalized, I placed him in the Rock ’n Play and then laid down on my bed, a few feet away, to “close my eyes.” When I woke up, it was pitch-dark and silent, and the clock said that six hours had passed. I scooped him out of the contraption and into my arms, and I felt a sick, guilty relief as his warm little belly rose and fell against me. I wondered then if I had done something only symbolically hazardous, like ordering sushi and a glass of wine in the third trimester. Now I believe that, as is often the case when keeping a tiny human alive, I was just slightly lucky.