Why Crib Bumpers Are Never Safe

Crib bumpers are dangerous for babies. Here's what experts say and why Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois worked hard to get them banned with the Safe Cribs Act.

Stylish Scandinavian newborn baby nursery
Photo: Getty Images/ Oscar Wong

When she was about 16 weeks pregnant, U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth started planning for her firstborn with joy. After struggling for years with infertility and failed cycles of in vitro fertilization (IVF), she felt anxious, but ready to get the baby's nursery ready. With that came tons of time researching safe sleep for infants.

"Then I have a baby shower," she recalls. "I get these beautiful bedding sets as part of my baby shower and inside the bedding sets are crib bumpers. And I remember thinking, 'Wait, I thought I'm not supposed to have these?'"

Through her research, pre-birthing classes, and conversations with her OB-GYN, the Illinois senator already learned of the dangers of crib bumpers, or padding added to the inside edges of a crib with the belief that it prevents babies from head injuries or getting stuck between the slats. Senator Duckworth saw "tested for safety" on the packaging, but realized that likely was referring to choking hazards and that the materials used were fire retardant. "It's confusing to a parent or parent-to-be, or someone who's trying to give a gift to a parent," says Senator Duckworth, now mom of two, ages 7 and 4. "This is a real safety hazard."

Since then, she worked hard to get crib bumper banned on a national level. Chicago became the first city to ban crib bumpers in 2011. Maryland, New York, and Ohio later banned them on state level. In 2021, Senator Duckworth introduced the Safe Cribs Act, along with Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio and Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, to get the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission to enforce a country-wide ban on the manufacturing, importation, and sale of crib bumpers. This week their efforts paid off: President Joe Biden signed the Safe Sleep for Babies Act of 2021 into law. It prohibits manufacturers from selling crib bumpers, as well as inclined sleepers, which are also dangerous for babies.

"It's so important because it clarifies what's safe and what's not safe," says Senator Duckworth about the new law. "Parents really do get mixed messages, especially new parents."

But manufacturers and retailers have 180 days to comply with the new law and it's possible parents will still receive hand-me-down crib bumpers. Here's why experts say to never use these in your baby's crib.

Crib Bumper Dangers

The dangers of crib bumpers became a focus in the last two decades. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)'s latest recommendations urges parents to stay away from them altogether.

"Crib bumpers make a child's sleep space less safe than if the baby was sleeping in the crib without them," explains Rashmi Jain, M.D., a concierge pediatrician in Irvine, California. "Any soft materials, like bumper pads, blankets, pillows, stuffed animals, can be suffocation and strangulation risks. They can also increase the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)."

In fact, there were 113 deaths involving crib bumpers from 1990 to 2019 and 113 nonfatal incidents and concerns reported between 2008 and 2019, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). A 2007 landmark study published in the Journal of Pediatrics also found crib bumpers can cause suffocation and strangulation.

For safe sleep, parents should place babies on their backs on a firm flat surface, in their own space in a crib or bassinet, without loose blankets, pillows, stuffed toys, or any other soft items, according to the AAP.

In the first few months of life, babies don't have the motor skills needed to turn their neck in another direction or move away from a confined space. "As a result, if they are accidentally put on their side and roll onto a bumper, they could potentially suffocate," says Matthew Harris, M.D., a New York-based pediatric emergency medicine physician and medical director of the Northwell Health vaccine program.

While there are mesh breathable alternatives to padded crib bumpers, the AAP and other experts do not recommend them. "As a parent of three children and a pediatrician, we did not utilize these with our children," says Dr. Harris. And Dr. Jain adds, "No bumper pads are necessary in a baby's crib regardless of material, thickness, firmness, or breathability."

For parents concerned their baby might get hurt or stuck between the crib's slats—a common fear pediatricians hear—there are simple ways to avoid that. "A swaddle, wearable blanket, or sleep sack is a good solution to prevent this," says Dr. Jain. And make sure cribs have slats no more than 2 3/8 inches (6 cm) apart so a baby's head can't get trapped in between. (All cribs manufactured after June 2011 are expected to meet this requirement.)

Why were crib bumpers still on the market despite their dangers? According to Senator Duckworth, much of it comes down to representation. There aren't many members of Congress who are new moms, says Senator Duckworth, who was the first U.S. Senator to give birth while in office. "That lived experience of being confused myself and receiving these things as a gift," she says, "allows me to bring that lived experience to my job."

With the new law in place, Senator Duckworth emphasizes that parents should stop using crib bumpers immediately. "It's not worth the aesthetic beauty of having a crib bumper and it really doesn't do anything to protect your child," she says. "Get rid of it or use it for something else, but don't put it on the crib."

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