Hidden hazard of crib bumpers

Rhiannon Lopez holds her son Aiden next to the crib where he was later found lifeless last February in Austin, Texas. (Family photo)

Many parents still aren't getting the message.

"This is something people are buying and are told is safe to put into their cribs," said Nancy Cowles, executive director of Kids in Danger, a nonprofit group dedicated to protecting kids from unsafe products.

Unknown toll

Babies can suffocate because they lack motor skills and strength to turn their heads if they roll against something that blocks their breathing.

It's unclear how many babies have died this way. Medical examiners and coroners aren't required to report deaths to the safety commission.

Since 2008, the federally funded National Center for Child Death Review has received 14 reports of a baby suffocating where a bumper was relevant in the death, the Tribune found.

Meanwhile, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, in a span of 20 years, has received 52 reports of infant deaths in which bumper pads were mentioned but not necessarily ruled as the cause, according to a report released in July.

The agency said 28 of those deaths had been associated with bumper pads, meaning the product played some role in the death.

The remaining deaths might not have been fully investigated, the Tribune found. Commission spokesman Scott Wolfson said the agency would re-examine those files as part of its probe into bumper safety.

In the July report, agency staff said a medical examiner ruled that 24 of the 52 deaths were due to SIDS or entrapments in cribs. The agency declined to say how many of those deaths involved babies' faces being close to, or pressed up against, bumper pads. Several files ruled out bumper pads, such as when a baby suffocated face down in a pillow. The report also said 18 infant death files contained minimal information, but it's unclear if agency staff followed up with police or parents for more details. Manufacturers have cited the Consumer Product Safety Commission's report in claiming bumpers are safe.

The industry, however, was alerted to the safety hazard several years ago with Thach's study. His work was brought to an "infant bedding committee" of American Society for Testing and Materials International, which guides product standards. Bedding manufacturers are major players in the group; representatives of government and advocacy groups sit on the committee, too.

In response to Thach's work, a separate study on bumper pads was spearheaded by the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association, a trade group representing product manufacturers. The organization said the study isn't public yet and declined to answer questions.

Several retailers say they are aware of the safety concerns but still sell the products. Babies R Us asked manufacturers last year to stop making bumpers more than 1 inch thick, but some older products are likely still sold. Alternatives have popped up in recent years, including mesh liners that babies supposedly can breathe through and bumpers that zip vertically onto individual slats.

There are no safety standards for the thickness or softness of bumpers. Bumpers also don't come with warning tags about the risk of suffocation. The standards group said it is trying to define "pillowy" then would urge manufacturers to avoid making that type of bumper.

'I thought it was necessary'

Crib bumpers have been used for decades, originally as a way to cover space between crib slats and to provide padding if a mattress didn't fit tightly in a crib. Crib regulations changed in the 1970s, mandating less space between crib slats so babies wouldn't get their heads caught.

The government has received reports of injuries where infants got their limbs caught in crib slats, although no fatalities were reported.

Many caregivers think bumper pads are a must.

Tami Vanderwilt wanted her grandson, Aiden Lopez, to have a safe place to sleep.

Last February, Vanderwilt played with the 6-month-old before his afternoon nap.