Deadly Cribs: A Secret History

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"I had to pick out a tiny coffin for my son with the money I had saved for his first birthday party,” wrote Michele Witte on her website, explaining the aftermath of her son’s 1997 death from suffocating in his drop-side crib.

“He was 10 months old when his neck became lodged between the side rail of his crib and the headboard,” Witte told MainStreet. “Apparently he was trying to pull himself up, one screw loosened and that creates a spring-loaded vise that takes approximately 15 seconds to suffocate [a child] to death … I thought it was an isolated incident until three years later when I learned that several other children died the same way.”

Witte’s son Tyler along with countless American children through the years slept - and still sleep - in drop-side cribs. But these and other types of common cribs that have been around for decades are now the subject of numerous recalls by the Consumer Product Safety Commission following numerous reports of children getting trapped and dying in them.

Crib Dangers

"Either the hardware is crappy or the instructions are so confusing" that cribs aren’t put together securely and pose a serious hazard to children, says Jeffrey Killino, a Philadelphia-based injury lawyer who has worked with families whose children have been hurt or killed by faulty cribs.

Children have suffocated between mattresses and cribs or they’ve been trapped in parts that have unexpectedly detached causing serious, sometimes fatal head and body injuries.

“The rails in between the posts come loose and kids put their heads or arms through the cribs and are injured or killed,” he explains, and in some cases "it could all have been prevented for 50 cents, or $1 or 25 cents … they could have never had a problem in the first place,” Killino says.

Many of the recently-recalled cribs have one side that slides down – a drop side – to easily put a baby to bed or pick an infant up, but cribs with stationary sides, have caused serious accidents and deaths as well.

If stationary side cribs are assembled incorrectly, a child's head can get caught, causing suffocation, a condition that Witte says is a flaw that all drop-side cribs have.

And just because so many cribs have been recalled doesn’t mean there aren’t still more out there that are dangerous, Killino adds, saying that parents should not trust regulators and retailers to be as vigilant about safety as a parent would be.

That’s not to say that all cribs are dangerous, however. If you’re searching for a safe crib, “the best thing a parent can do is check the CPSC web site, look for cribs that have been recalled. And don’t stop at looking at the make model and number; look at the nature of the defect,” and pay attention to the manufacturers’ names and the types of cribs that have been recalled, Killino advises. And when you look at a crib that has been put together, check for parts that look like they may come loose and become a choking hazard or possible areas of entrapment or suffocation, he says. But even then, “I'd really think twice about buying a drop-side crib,” Killino says.

Past Crib Deaths

Reports of crib-related deaths aren’t just surfacing now. Suffocation deaths involving infants in all types of cribs go as far back as the 1930s, suggests a report from the American Journal of Public Health published in 1947.

And entrapments in addition to suffocation deaths in cribs have been happening since the 1950s, according to a 1985 study by the UCLA School of Public Health.

Some early infant suffocation deaths are attributed to respiratory illnesses and being placed face down in a crib, according to a 1950 Time Magazine article, a practice that many now know is unsafe.

In California, from 1960 to 1981, 25% of infant strangulations occurred when a child became wedged between a mattress and a bed frame, bed slats or other parts of a crib, according to the University of California at Los Angeles School of Public Health.

Investigations in 1969 by the National Commission on Product Safety found that crib designs in particular were the cause of these injuries and deaths, prompting the development of new federal crib standards four years later in 1973. That was the last update on crib safety regulations, which we’ll describe in more detail later.

Despite better education on sleep safety and more regulations covering crib design, at least 2,178 infants younger than 13 months died between 1980 and 1997 due to so-called “mechanical suffocation,” which is caused by a child’s physical surroundings as opposed to throat obstructions, according to a 1999 study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The CPSC has said, however, that safe crib standards led to an 89% reduction in fatalities and injuries between 1973 and 2007, says Michael Dwyer, executive director of the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association. He is working with children’s furniture makers as millions of drop-side cribs are being pulled off the market. Dwyer himself slept in a drop-side crib as an infant, he says.

The Government’s Role

Before a product is recalled, problems with faulty products often go straight from the consumer to the manufacturer, explains Mike Rozembajgier, director of recalls for ExpertRECALL, a company that advises manufacturers in all aspects of the recall process.

But there needs to be communication on several levels, otherwise any recall efforts could be ineffective, Rozembajgier suggests.

“The agency is working with industry associations like the JPMA and working with consumers and parents,” he says. “Manufacturers need to continue [to] focus on putting safe solutions out there in a timely fashion.”

As part of the government regulations enacted in 1973, there are already strict rules governing crib design. For instance, interior crib dimensions must measure 28 inches (plus or minus 5/8 of an inch) by 52 3/8 inches (plus or minus 5/8 of an inch), while mattresses should be at least 27 ¼ inches by 51 5/8, making for very little space for suffocation between a mattress and crib.

Even when companies and federal safety officials do their jobs, however, dangerous incidents related to recalled products still do happen.

“The problem is two-fold: Some people never learn that a product they own has been recalled, and others know they have a recalled product but don't think anything bad will happen,” The Washington Post recently reported.

On top of that, cribs subject to recalls can’t always be tracked to the current owner.

“Cribs are an interesting product. Over time you see that cribs are handed down to family members, neighbors and through garage sales,” Rozembajgier says.

The JPMA says it’s supporting CPSC updates to crib safety standards which would be revised to include better labeling and instructions and better mattress support, the organization said in a press release.

What You Can Do

Parents worried about their crib’s safety should not necessarily just let their infant sleep in a bed with them.

Between January 1980 and September 1997, 180 infants were killed by being “overlain,” which happens when their noses and mouths are obstructed while sleeping with care givers in adult beds, according to a report in the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“It’s critical to note that the safest place for a child is in a fully functional, properly assembled crib that is not part of a recall, that is in good condition as it provides the safest sleep environment for children,” says Dwyer of the JMPA. The trade group offers tips to help ensure that infants sleep safely at cribsafety.org.

In addition, putting a broken drop-side against a wall won’t fix your problem. In fact, it could make matters worse, says Dwyer. If a faulty drop side were put against a wall, there’s a chance that it might be even more difficult for an entrapped child to be extricated with a wall in the way. Placing your crib away from windows, draperies, blinds or wall-mounted decorative accessories with long cords is also important, he says.

All baby gear should be checked regularly for stability, misassembly or age-related wear and tear, Dwyer adds, and if a crib is more than 10 years old, it should be replaced because it may not comply with current safety standards. And if you’re making repairs to a crib, make sure you only use parts directly from the original manufacturer, Dwyer says.

Of course, it’s not just parents who should make sure the products they buy are safe.

Crib safety standards require that they come with instructions are “written that an unskilled layman can correctly assemble the crib without making errors that would result in improper and unsafe assembly.”

Clearly, if parents are installing their cribs’ drop sides upside down, instructions aren’t appropriately written.

Fixing vs. Replacing

Many makers of recalled cribs offer kits that consumers can use to fix their cribs at home instead of giving parents a full refund for their potentially-dangerous product. Repair kits are meant to completely remove any safety risk, but if your child has been hurt by a defective crib, a kit may not be enough.

“If the manufacturer or vender will not offer a refund, but only a fix, I would advise the parents to purchase another crib. I know this is a great expense, but I would not sleep well if my children were in a dangerous crib. Who wants to ask themselves, ‘What if?’” says Matthew Kaplan, a Portland, Ore., injury lawyer and father of two.

“I never liked cribs with dropped sides. Though I bought a drop-down crib, I never once put the side down. It functioned fine without that feature,” says Victoria Staten, a mother of two in Minneapolis. “Too often products are over-designed with too many unnecessary bells and whistles. My favorites baby products are intuitive, functional, comfortable, simple …” Staten adds.

And if simpler is also safer, children’s product makers, who Dwyer says are in discussion with the JPMA about phasing out drop-side cribs altogether, may be on the right track.

Seeking Legal Action

Witte, whose son Tyler died in a drop-side crib incident, didn’t file a lawsuit with the manufacturer of her son’s crib, whose name she can’t disclose. However, she’s been working with government officials in her home state of New York on proposals for state and federal bans on drop-side cribs in particular.

But if your child has been injured or has died as a result of any type of faulty crib or other product, the most important thing to do is preserve the faulty product, as much as it might be a relief to throw it out, Killino says, adding, “You’ve got to have the evidence.”

Next, it’s important to seek help from an attorney who is experienced in representing the interests of children, says Killino. “We look at the product, search for other incidents and injuries through public resources and databases and have engineers and experts who will look at the products,” Killino explains.

Generally, Killino’s clients aren’t complaining of a bruised knee or a scrape. “These are the products where kids are dead,” he says. “Ultimately, collecting damages isn’t about collecting to dollars and cents. It sends a message to manufacturers” that when they put profits in front of safety, there will be punitive damages to pay.

 

In the last month alone, there have been eight crib recalls issued by safety regulators and manufacturers.  To make sure your child's crib isn't among these, read MainStreet's story, "A Spate of Faulty Cribs."

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