When it came to the market in 2009, the Fisher-Price Rock ‘n Play baby sleeper seemed to be the answer to the prayers of haggard, over-scheduled, sleep-deprived parents, desperate for a convenient way to get their infants to sleep. It soon turned into a gut-wrenching tragedy, however, as over 30 infants were killed as a result of using a product that was poorly-designed and never tested for safety. Fisher-Price finally issued a recall for all Rock ‘n Play units in April 2019 – but not until after Consumer Reports published its own investigation.
Fisher-Price, a manufacturer of child and infant products for 90 years and once a trusted name in the industry, promoted the Rock ‘n Play as “great for overnight sleep.” The product is essentially a hammock, suspended from a metal frame at a 30-degree incline, which the manufacturer claimed: “helps baby sleep all night long.” In addition, the Rock ‘n Play includes an automated rocking and vibration mechanism as well as a built-in stereo. The Rock ‘n Play is similar to another product, known as the Snoo Smart Sleeper, designed by prominent pediatrician Dr. Harvey Karp. The problem is that the Snoo Smart Sleeper carries a steep $1300 price tag – so Fisher-Price decided that a similar sleeper, priced at a more affordable $50 - $150, would be a big seller.
Fisher-Price employee Linda Chapman came up with the idea for the Rock ‘n Play based on her own experiences as a sleep-deprived mother of a newborn nine years earlier. Ms. Chapman's background is in industrial design – but she had no training or qualifications in pediatrics. Nor did she consult with her son's pediatrician. Instead, she relied on something he had told her when her son was an infant. According to a deposition taken on March 21st, her son's pediatrician at the time recommended that Ms. Chapman “elevate his head when sleeping.” When she asked how this should be done, the pediatrician said that other than placing a pillow under the infant's mattress, “he really didn't have a good way to do it.”
Chapman did some market research and found there were no other products exactly like the Rock ‘n Play. What she and Fisher-Price failed to consider was the then-current recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which still defines a “safe sleeping environment” as one that includes “supine [face up] positioning, use of a firm sleep surface, room-sharing without bed-sharing, and avoidance of soft bedding and overheating.” Chapman did not understand the meaning of the term “supine.”
What Pediatricians Say
Pediatricians in the US and Europe note that elevating a baby's head causes more problems than it solves, exacerbating gastric reflux – one of the common conditions that the Rock ‘n Play was supposed to address. Despite published scientific evidence to the contrary, Fisher-Price continued in its claims that “Doctors often advise letting such colicky infants sleep in an inclined supine position, of as much as 30 degrees,” citing outdated pediatric guidelines from 2001. The company's claims did not reflect the most recent research available in 2009. When asked why she relied on comments her pediatrician had made years before and failed to look up the latest research and medical guidelines, Chapman simply replied, “That's not my job.”
Whose Job Was It?
Fisher-Price's safety department was also headed by an engineer with virtually no medical training. Kitty Pilarz, who today is company vice-president of product safety and regulatory compliance, admitted that Fisher-Price's company payroll did not include any physicians or medically-qualified personnel. She did, however, speak with a “medical consultant,” one Dr. Gary Deegear, who frequently appears in court as an expert witness in product liability cases. There have been serious questions about Deegear, whose license to practice medicine expired in 2015. His testimony has been excluded in at least two trials for lack of credible evidence. In 2018, Deegear was accused of practicing medicine without a license by the Texas Medical Board. Deegear failed to show up for that hearing – and today, he seems to have disappeared altogether.
According to Pilarz, however, Deegear did tell her that “pediatricians recommend babies with reflux sleep at 30 degrees, this is just fine” for up to a year. She does not remember doing any research beyond that and admits that she never consulted with actually licensed pediatricians. Again, her “research” was confined to outdated studies and advisories published in the late 1990s.
It is worth noting that the tragic infant deaths are not the only problem consumers have had with the Rock ‘n Play. In 2013, an Alabama couple led a class-action lawsuit against the company because of problems with mold growing under the mattress.
The bottom line here is that modern pediatric science has recommended that infants sleep flat on their backs, face up, on a firm level surface since before 2009. Even inclined devices (i.e., car safety seats) are legally required to include warnings about the possible dangers to an infant's respiratory system if they are allowed to remain in them for an extended period of time.
The Fisher-Price Rock ‘n Play carried no such warnings. Based on recent testimony, Fisher-Price appears to have been willfully, even criminally negligent in its failure to consider, or even consult, the most up-to-date pediatric research and guidelines. There are at least two lawsuits filed against the company – and more are likely to follow.