The Fisher-Price Rock 'n Play Recall Speaks to Parental Desperation, Not Just Lack of Awareness

A few days ago, a friend of mine with a newborn texted to ask if she could chuck the Rock ‘n Play I’d handed down to her into the trash. She had just gotten word of Fisher-Price’s massive recall of its “Sleepers.” I had not. I began Googling feverishly, reading about the 32 infant deaths, some due to asphyxia, with a hand clutched to my mouth.

But here’s the thing: It was not news to me that this product posed a potential safety risk, nor was it to my friend, who was about to try to figure out whether that hulking piece of plastic would fit into her trash bin. We had both used it—or planned to use it—sparingly, and with great caution and limitation, despite the potential risks. The reason being parental desperation, of the anticipatory and actual variety.

Early last week, the Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) called for the recall of all Rock ‘n Play Sleepers, calling them “deadly.” On Friday, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission officially issued the recall of nearly 5 million products. This might seem sudden, especially for a product beloved by parents since 2009, but the AAP has long warned against allowing babies to sleep in inclined devices, including Rock ‘n Plays, as well as car seats, because of the risk of suffocation.

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The academy’s recommendation—one oft repeated amid efforts to tackle rates of sudden unexpected infant death (SUID), which can include accidental suffocation during sleep—is that babies are placed to sleep on their back on a flat surface without bedding or bumpers.

And yet, Rock ‘n Plays have remained a baby registry staple over the past decade, because many a parent has sworn by the product’s ability to get babies to sleep. Parents of newborns might find themselves, as I did, awoken every 30 minutes throughout the night in those first few days. They might find themselves eventually exclaiming, with euphoric relief, that they were able to sleep for whole hour-long stretches. As a friend of mine said of this difficult period, “Are you a baby or a torture device? You want us to keep you, right?” Alexis Dubief, a baby sleep consultant, told NPR of the recall:

Well, I think the big impact is going to be just sleeplessness and possibly an increase in co-sleeping. I think there’s a lot of stress because for many parents, they understand that sleep in the crib is the gold standard for safety. They understand that. These are not parents who are uninformed. But they’re also miserably sleep deprived. The reality is people suffer seriously from sleep deprivation. What happens is we fall back into kind of desperation-based, unsafe behaviors. It’s not a logical decision. It’s a desperation decision.

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Of course, this sleep-safety awareness might be true of parents who find their way to a pricey sleep consultant, but there are many parents who do not have the luxury of scrolling through the AAP website and baby sleep advice blogs, and who might not fully understand the risks around Rock ‘n Plays. But Dubief speaks to the reality that parents have often used the Rock ‘n Plays with an awareness of the risk, and a sense of desperation.

In a country with shit parental leave, that desperation around sleep is often an economic one. You’ve got a baby now, you can hardly afford to lose a job from poor performance driven by sleep deprivation. There’s also the fact that Rock ‘n Plays sell for as low as $50, while more AAP-appropriate sleep solutions, like the vibrating Halo Bassinest and the Snoo are much pricier, running upwards of $200 and $1,200, respectively. It’s easier to follow the rules when you’ve got the money to do it.

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In the moms group that I joined early on, a frequent topic of conversation was how someone had (cringing grin) resorted to letting their baby sleep overnight in the Rock ‘n Play after several nights with little sleep. There was a lot of talk, too, about the guilt around using various baby-containment devices—swings, seats, rockers, walkers—while trying to get shit done around the house, because we’d read that these products could potentially mess up hip joints, or flatten the head, or send a baby down a staircase.

The land of official recommendation can often feel oppressive, tyrannical, and inhumane to parents who are in the baby trenches. There is so much that you are technically supposed to do, or technically not supposed to do. There’s a necessary negotiation with reality on the part of the consumer—I mean parent (which is modern parenthood in a nutshell right there). Often, it comes down to one salient fact: you have to take care yourself, too, not just that baby.

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