Saving Babies’ Lives in the Hospital and the Statehouse

Rebecca Bell, MD, speaking at the Vermont Statehouse

As a physician in the pediatric intensive care unit at University of Vermont Children’s Hospital, Rebecca Bell, MD, has seen too many babies whose lives were put at risk by an unsafe sleep environment – defined as anything other than a baby sleeping in its own crib, on its back, with no blankets, pillows, pads or toys. The Vermont Department of Health estimates that unsafe sleep environments are responsible for four to six infant deaths in Vermont each year

Dr. Bell is a member of Vermont’s Child Fatality Review Team, but she says it wasn’t until she became a parent herself that she understood how much misinformation parents receive about how to put their babies to sleep – despite strong efforts from hospitals and pediatricians to deliver, and reiterate, evidence-based advice about safe sleep. A huge source of that misinformation, she realized, comes from consumer product marketing.  

“I remember going into a chain store, and they had all these cribs displayed with color-coordinated padded crib bumpers, heavy blankets, pillows and stuffed animals. I said to them, ‘none of this is recommended,’ and they said ‘our store requires us to display all cribs like this.’ I was horrified,” says Dr. Bell.

Cute Decor, but Dangerous for Infants

The Journal of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Pediatrics have warned against the dangers of crib bumpers since 2007. The Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a statement in 2016 reading, in part, “We believe there is a clear risk of injury or death associated with padded crib bumpers.”  

“That was another eye-opening piece for me,” Dr. Bell says. “If the Consumer Product Safety Commission is saying these products shouldn’t be used, you would think that would be the end of it. But that’s not how it works. They can make recommendations, but only lawmakers can actually ban the sale of a product.”  

So, after receiving support from her colleagues at the Vermont chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), Dr. Bell decided to take the conversation to the Statehouse.

Elevating Awareness in the Statehouse

In early 2019, Dr. Bell worked with Chittenden County Senators Virginia Lyons and Debbie Ingram to introduce a bill banning the sale of padded crib bumpers. While it wasn’t the first time such a bill had been introduced, it was the first time lawmakers took testimony on the issue.  

In 2017, Rep. George Till of Jericho, an OB/GYN at UVM Medical Center, had introduced a similar measure. Unfortunately, the proposal didn’t see any action after it was introduced. “The committee did the initial walkthrough, but they never called for testimony,” Dr. Bell says. “That signaled to me that we had to be persistent. It’s about being proactive and going to those committee members, and talking to them about why this is important, instead of waiting for them to take up the issue.” 

Misinformation in Marketing

This time, Dr. Bell testified about the extensive national evidence of the dangers of padded crib bumpers, as well as a 2018 Vermont Department of Health study indicating the extent to which Vermont parents were unaware of the risks.   

“Parents were shocked to learn that crib bumpers are not safe. In fact, many thought this is a product they have to have,” she says, explaining that, a generation ago, when cribs had wide openings between the slats, bumpers were thought to be necessary to keep babies from getting their heads stuck. But then manufacturing standards changed, literally making the crib bumper obsolete. “And now we know that it’s not just unnecessary, it’s also dangerous.” 

“As a parent, you don’t have time to research everything you’re seeing in stores. And in those Department of Health interviews, when parents said, ‘if something is on the shelf, I assume it’s safe,’ that seemed to really make an impact with lawmakers.”  

The bill ended up easily passing the Senate. Unfortunately, it made it over to the House side after Town Meeting Week, when there wasn’t enough time to consider the bill before the end of the legislative session.  

Helping her cause is the fact that two other states – Maryland and Ohio – have now banned crib bumpers, and a proposal was also introduced at the federal level in June of 2019.   

Dr. Bell says “this is an issue at the intersection of public health, child health, and consumer protection.” Bell hopes to continue lobbying for the bill in the House when the Legislature reconvenes in January 2020.  

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