When Sara Landis, of Philadelphia, brought her 1-year-old son to day care on a recent June morning, she was shocked to see a Fisher-Price Rock ‘n Play Sleeper in the facility’s infant room. The inclined sleeper had been recalled two months prior, on April 12, after a Consumer Reports investigation linked the product to dozens of infant fatalities.
The recall affected nearly 5 million Fisher-Price sleepers—and prompted the subsequent recall in late April of nearly 700,000 similar inclined sleepers made by Kids II. The Fisher-Price recall had been widely reported, yet there was the Rock ‘n Play Sleeper, still being used at the day care center Landis trusts to keep her son safe.
Fortunately, Sara’s husband, Adam Garber, works at U.S. PIRG, a consumer organization, where he focuses on product safety. So Landis called Garber, who in turn called their day care director to ask if she knew about the product recall.
“Our day care provider, who cares deeply about the kids, was really confused,” says Garber, noting that his son’s caregiver did not want to speak with CR. “She said she thought there had only been a warning about the Rock ‘n Play Sleeper and that as long as the product was properly used, and babies were buckled in, it would be fine.” Garber explained to her that the alert was only the initial notification released by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, but that after further investigation, Fisher-Price issued a full recall.
Garber’s day care provider never got that updated information about the recall—and so continued using the product. And according to a new survey inspired by Garber’s experience, released today by U.S. PIRG and Kids In Danger (another consumer advocacy organization), many other day care centers didn’t know about the inclined sleeper recalls either. Of the 376 facilities that responded to the survey, conducted between June 20 and July 10, 1 in 10 still was using Fisher-Price Rock ‘n Play Sleepers or Kids II inclined sleepers.
Dangerous products still in use
The finding was alarming, Garber says, given the danger the sleepers pose. To date, CR is aware of at least 53 infant deaths linked to inclined sleepers. That includes one fatality that occurred in a Rock ‘n Play Sleeper at a residential day care facility in 2015, and two separate alleged fatalities that were newly reported in a lawsuit filed on July 12 by the firms Wolf Haldenstein and Blank Rome against Fisher-Price and its parent company, Mattel.
Only 18 states have regulations banning recalled products in day care centers, according to an analysis done by KID. And today’s survey shows that even in states with such laws, day care centers often remain in the dark about recalls.
For instance, the survey focused on three states: Wisconsin and Texas, both of which ban the use of recalled products in day care centers; and Georgia, which does not. “But the results were pretty close to the same in every state,” Garber says. “I think the biggest problem is really an information gap—getting the right information to the people who need it.”
Nancy Cowles, executive director of KID, notes that the findings illustrate a larger problem with recalls. “I think this shows how hard it is to get the word out about a recall,” she says. “More needs to be done by the CPSC and the recalling company to make sure that they’re reaching anyone who might be using the product.”
In response to CR's questions about the survey findings, a CPSC spokesperson said that the agency encourages child care providers to sign up for recall announcements and that thousands of providers had already done so.
In the case of the Rock ‘n Play Sleeper recall, part of the problem was confusing messaging from the CPSC and Fisher-Price, Garber says.
The government and the company first issued a joint alert on April 5, warning consumers that the Rock ‘n Play Sleeper had been linked with infant deaths, but stated—incorrectly, according to medical experts—that the product was safe if used with the restraints for infants up to three months of age. A week later, after CR reported the broader hazards and linked the inclined sleeper to dozens of deaths, the CPSC and Fisher-Price announced the recall. But the recall notice from the CPSC and the company did not emphasize the risk of suffocation that could occur even when infants were strapped into the product on their backs. Consequently, many consumers wrongly believed the sleeper could still be used safely.
“Recalls don’t work well unless people get a clear and consistent message. And they especially don’t work well if manufacturers and the government fail to fully warn people about the risks of a product,” says William Wallace, manager of home and safety policy for CR.
The CPSC also continued to highlight erroneous, out-of-date information long after the recall. On June 19, CR saw that the agency’s homepage, under “Latest News,” still listed the April 5 alert, but not the recall itself.
When CR asked the CPSC about this, an agency spokesperson said: “We are looking into a redesign of our website so the most prominent recalls remain on the home page for a longer time. Recalls are always searchable whether or not they are on our home page.”
After our inquiry, the CPSC put information about the inclined sleeper recalls on the top of its homepage and updated the April 5th alert with a link to the recall notice.
Streamlining the system
The U.S. recall system typically puts the onus on individual consumers and day care facilities to be on the lookout for recall notices or to sign up for recall lists. But “this survey is a reminder for state health departments—and any organizations that have oversight of childcare—to make sure they’re doing everything they can to get recall information to childcare facilities,” Cowles says. “There are no childcare providers who want to use recalled products. Either they don’t know the product is recalled or they have been misled by the company to think that if they use the product correctly, it will be safe,” Cowles says.
Currently, there isn't an established process for directly notifying all day care facilities about recalls, says Ami Gadhia, chief of policy, research, and programs at Child Care Aware of America, a nonprofit that represents child care resource and referral agencies. Each state operates differently, and “we struggle to make sure product recall information gets to day care centers,” she says. (Gadhia previously worked at CR as a policy analyst.)
“Childcare providers are extraordinarily busy. They’re working from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., if not longer, caring for young children, which is an extremely time-consuming and exhausting task—and they’re not product safety experts,” Gadhia says. “That’s why the CPSC and the folks who sell and make money off of these products have a responsibility to notify childcare providers to stop using recalled products.”
When CR asked Fisher-Price if it did any specific outreach to day care providers regarding the Rock ‘n Play Sleeper recall, a spokesperson said that the company used various channels, including social media, a press release, and its own website to notify consumers. "We have also reached out to companies on the secondary market notifying them of the recall and urging them to take action to prevent unlawful resales of the recalled product.”
Fisher-Price also said that one of the best ways for consumers to be immediately notified of a recall is to register their products. But that only works if you are the first owner of the product, which many day care centers, and consumers, may not be.
The company Kids II did not respond to CR’s request for comment.
Garber, at U.S. PIRG, suggests that it should be standard practice for the CPSC and manufacturers to notify state health departments and day care centers of recalls. He notes that the contact information of day care facilities in most states is public and easy to access.
Cowles adds that companies should use their marketing muscle to improve outreach to individual consumers. “They can use the same marketing tools they use to sell their products to reach consumers and retrieve the products.”
What parents can do
For now, parents who want to find out how their day care facility handles recalls should ask the provider directly, Garber says. “One of the things we’re telling folks is to just go in and ask what the center’s plan is to check for and remove recalled products—and then ask about specific products.” And that’s true even in states that ban recalled products in day cares, like Pennsylvania, where Garber and Landis live.
Ben Hoffman, M.D., chairperson of the American Academy of Pediatric's Council on Injury, Violence, and Poison Prevention’s executive committee, adds that all inclined sleepers—even those that have not been recalled—pose an inherent danger and should not be used. In fact, the AAP, lawmakers, and consumer safety advocates have called for a withdrawal of the entire product category.
The AAP recommends that caregivers put babies to bed on their backs—alone, unrestrained, and on a firm, flat surface free of bumpers and other soft bedding.
“I would encourage parents to talk to day care providers and make sure their babies are put to sleep in a safe way, and not in a recalled product—but ideally not in any inclined sleeper,” Hoffman says.
To find the most up-to-date information on product recalls, subscribe to the CPSC recall listserv.
And, when you buy a product, if it comes with a registration card, fill out the card and mail it back to the manufacturer (or do the process online). This information will only be used to contact you in the event of a product recall or safety alert.