Fisher-Price Ignored the Risks of Its Rock ’n Play Sleeper for a Decade While Babies Died, a House Investigation Finds

The findings echo those of a two-year investigation by Consumer Reports linking the sleeper and related products to nearly 100 deaths

Fisher Price Auto Rock n' Play sleeper box
Packaging for the Fisher-Price Rock ’n Play Sleeper before its recall in 2019.
Photo: Consumer Reports

“When will Fisher-Price be forced to take ownership for creating a dangerous product and publicly blaming all the parents of the babies who died in it?” Sara Thompson asked recently. Her 15-week-old son Alex is one of the nearly 100 infants who died in a Rock ’n Play Sleeper.

She’d hoped that her question would be answered today when the House Committee on Oversight and Reform held a hearing and released the findings of its investigation into the Fisher-Price product and other similar sleepers, which CR first reported in April 2019 had been tied to dozens of infant fatalities. These products position babies at an angle of greater than 10 degrees and are made with soft padding, both of which can increase an infant’s risk of suffocation.

More on Safe Sleep

Lawmakers aggressively sought accountability from Ynon Kreiz, chief executive officer of Mattel, which owns Fisher-Price, and Chuck Scothon, senior vice president and general manager of Fisher-Price, both of whom testified today for the first time since the Rock ’n Play Sleeper was recalled more than two years ago. 

But the executives did not admit any fault on the company’s behalf and maintained that its Rock ’n Play Sleeper, as well as two infant gliders it recalled last week, are safe when used according to the manufacturer’s instructions. The executives pointed to the Safe Start program that the company launched last week to underscore their commitment to safety. 

Despite Kreiz and Scothon standing by the safety of their products and refusing to take responsibility for the deaths and injuries, lawmakers questioned them extensively, and highlighted failures in the company’s processes as well as in the government’s product safety system as a whole.

“This is a national scandal,” said Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., chairwoman of the House committee. “It is breathtakingly irresponsible. It is corporate conduct that cannot be tolerated, and it has to change in the future. The committee’s investigation makes clear that Mattel and its subsidiary Fisher-Price put profits over people, with tragic results.”

The hearing and the committee’s report released today (PDF) highlighted what CR found in our original investigation:

• Fisher-Price didn’t conduct appropriate safety testing of its inclined sleeper before putting it on store shelves in 2009. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., told the company that “if most parents knew how Mattel had gone about designing the Rock ’n Play, they never would have bought it for their infants. . . . It’s shameful what the company did here.”

• The company’s products didn’t align with safe sleep recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics and put babies at risk of suffocation. Rep. Pat Fallon, R-Texas, said that while Fisher-Price may have acted legally in keeping its inclined products on the market while infants continued to die in them, “I just don’t feel it was the moral thing to do.” 

• Fisher-Price chose to keep its sleeper on the market, even after being warned by multiple pediatric medical groups and public health agencies in other countries that it was unsafe for infant sleep and even as infant fatalities mounted over a span of nearly 10 years. 

Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., said he was especially bothered that Fisher-Price stopped selling the Rock ’n Play Sleeper only when its risks were made public. “It wasn’t the warnings from the health experts and the pediatricians in 2005,” he said. “It wasn’t the Australian government and the Canadian government that rejected your sleeper in 2010 and 2011. It wasn’t the moms who complained about the safety of your sleeper in 2018. It wasn’t even the deaths, the 97 deaths associated with your Rock ’n Play Sleeper. Instead, what it was is Consumer Reports publishing a report about the deaths. You only acted because you got caught red-handed.” 

The hearing came less than a week after the Consumer Product Safety Commission voted to approve a final rule requiring that all products intended or marketed for sleep by infants up to 5 months old meet established safety standards. None of these standards allow for babies to be at an angle of greater than 10 degrees, essentially eliminating the infant inclined sleeper product category.

Also, products that don’t conform to the new sleep safety rule will not be allowed to use words, such as “dreams” and “snooze,” that suggest sleep in their marketing materials. Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif., asked Kreiz and Scothon to change the language on the company’s Sweet Snugapuppy Dreams Deluxe Bouncer. “Please don’t market things as about dreams or sleep or counting sheep or catching some zzz’s if the product isn’t safe to sleep in,” she said.

In addition, the committee’s report points to failures in the CPSC’s handling of the Rock ’n Play Sleeper and describes weaknesses in the agency’s ability to protect consumers. Noting that the product remained on the market for 10 years despite early warnings and an increasing number of infant fatalities tied to the sleeper, the report says the agency’s delay in acting “revealed grave flaws in the U.S. consumer product safety system, in which manufacturers are largely left to police themselves.” 

The report determined that “the CPSC lacks the necessary authority to protect infants from potentially deadly products,” partly because of laws unique to the agency that hinder it from disclosing company and product information to the public before first seeking permission from manufacturers. 

CR and other consumer advocates have pushed for years to repeal these requirements that prevent consumers from learning about potentially dangerous products

For example, when CPSC staff in 2018 compiled data for the agency’s commissioners showing that there were 15 known infant deaths associated with the Fisher-Price Rock ’n Play Sleeper, the report notes that staff members were alarmed, with one writing: “Holy cow! We need to discuss this. When the Commission sees this they are going to flip.” And yet this danger wasn’t revealed to the public until CR published its own investigation based on data inadvertently released to us by the CPSC.

The committee’s investigation makes clear that manufacturers “have an obvious financial incentive to keep their products on the market,” the report said, and that they “should not be empowered to determine whether these products are safe for the public.” The report recommends that “consumer protection laws, especially with respect to products for infants, must be strengthened.”

Erika Richter, whose 2-week-old daughter Emma died in a Rock ’n Play Sleeper in 2018, echoed these sentiments during videotaped testimony that was played during the hearing. “We cannot believe Fisher-Price’s false claims about their commitment to safety and corporate responsibility when we have hard evidence that points to their deliberate actions to take advantage of an unregulated market of infant sleep products,” she said. “If I had known about the dangers of the Fisher-Price Rock ’n Play Sleeper even minutes before Emma was placed in it, I would still have my daughter today.” 

At the conclusion of the hearing, Maloney asked the Fisher-Price executives to provide by the end of the week records of deaths in all Fisher-Price products, not just the recalled ones. 

William Wallace, manager of safety policy at Consumer Reports, says that the congressional investigation is an important step toward holding the company accountable. “Nothing can bring back the babies who have died, or turn back time to keep these families from suffering,” he says. “But if this ends with Fisher-Price paying a steep cost for its behavior, and strong new policies on the books to prevent this from ever happening again, then at least some measure of justice will have been done.”

Rachel Rabkin Peachman

I'm a science journalist turned investigative reporter on CR's Special Projects team. My job is to shed light on issues affecting people's health, safety, and well-being. I've dug deep into problems such as dangerous doctors, deadly children's products, and contamination in our food supply. Got a tip? Follow me on Twitter (@RachelPeachman).