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Are inclined sleepers safe for babies?

A pediatrician and mom of triplets weighs in on the risks of using the popular infant sleeper.

When Dr. Nina Ford Johnson of Mobile, Alabama, was pregnant with triplets in 2018, she requested three Rock ‘n Plays by Fisher-Price, a popular inclined baby sleeper.

“For the first three months that's what our babies were in. They slept in that, and if we'd put them down from feedings, that's where they were,” Johnson, a pediatrician, says. “And my babies were born premature so they were tiny. I wanted those because I could easily move them around from room to room.”

A few months later, in early 2019, Johnson began hearing about the Rock n’ Play recalls and other inclined baby sleeper recalls. “I saw several stories where parents were saying their infants were in these Rock ‘n Play sleepers and died, usually through asphyxiation, because they were now old enough where they could turn on their side,” Johnson says. “This happens around three to four months of age, where they roll over and can actually smother.”

Johnson immediately disposed of the Rock ‘n Play inclined infant sleepers. She also posted signs in her office lobby and in examination rooms to make sure her patients knew about the associated dangers. It’s hard to get parents away from inclined sleepers, though, because there’s so much anecdotal support for them from parents.

Pediatrician Nina Ford Johnson's triplets: Bella, Ava, and Alexander. Johnson stopped using the Rock ‘n Play inclined infant sleepers when she learned of the associated dangers. She also posted signs in her office lobby and in examination rooms to make sure her patients knew about dangers. Courtesy Nina Ford Johnson

“Not only am I a pediatrician, but I'm a mom so I can also give that first-hand experience. They are so peaceful in those sleepers,” Johnson says. “But I look back on it and I think, oh my gosh, I'm a pediatrician and now I'm a new mom and this was a risk!”

The Fisher-Price Rock ‘n Play and other inclined infant sleepers have been linked to at least 73 fatalities and more than 1,000 injuries — some serious — according to a December 2019 Consumer Reports article.

Millions have been recalled since 2009 when they hit stores, yet inclined sleepers are still highly prized baby shower gifts. Why? Johnson believes it’s a combination of affordability and longevity.

“As a pediatrician, I don't recommend it, but looking back on it if I knew then what I know now, I probably would not have done that for my babies. I probably would have gone the extra mile and gotten the more expensive bassinets, though they weren't going to be in them that long,” Johnson says. “And that's another reason why people love the Rock ‘n Plays, they are not that expensive and you get longer use out of them.”

Serious infant injuries like plagiocephaly (flat head) and torticollis (twisted neck) have been connected to the Fisher-Price Rock ‘n Play inclined baby sleeper and other infant sleepers, but Johnson says those conditions are not unique to any particular baby item and can be prevented.

“We naturally put babies on their backs, right? You lay them down and they don't know how to sit up by themselves,” Johnson says. “So it can cause them to be at risk for flat head. But that could be from any surface that we use, and usually that goes away as they get older, as they're able to lift the head up and certain things.”

This is why Johnson and other pediatricians recommend 30 daily minutes of tummy time for babies, starting around two weeks of age. Johnson says, “Put them on their stomachs for a couple minutes here, a couple minutes there, so they can build up those arm and neck muscles that they need to strengthen their neck and get better head control.”

Johnson says one way to prevent torticollis, if parents notice their baby often turning their neck one way and rarely the other, is to put the baby on the floor with a few toys in the opposite direction of which the baby’s neck is turned. Gentle infant massage can also help.

“I always tell parents, you've got to do what's best for you and your family,” Johnson says. She recommends as a first resource for questions about children’s health. “It’s put on by the American Academy of Pediatrics and gives sound advice based on science, regarding any medical question or concern that parents have.”