Needing a moment to prepare a snack, nanny Teri Deel set her 3-month-old charge in a Bumbo Baby Seat on the kitchen floor nearby.
Suddenly the 20-pound boy arched his back, lurched out of the round plastic seat and struck his head on a rattle. The fall fractured his skull and led to bleeding around the brain, according to a lawsuit filed against Bumbo in 2010 by the boy's parents, Julie and Judd Peak of Tennessee.
New parents and caregivers often swear by the colorful and quirky Bumbo, a popular baby shower gift that allows babies as young as 3 months to sit up before they are able to do so on their own. But even when the handy chair is used as recommended — on the floor and with adult supervision — infants are tumbling out and suffering cracked skulls, broken legs and other serious injuries, according to data from the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
In October of 2007, the Bumbo was voluntarily recalled in the U.S. after a wave of reported skull fractures in babies between 3 months and 10 months old. While many companies change the design of a recalled product or send consumers a kit to fix it, Bumbo made no alterations beyond a new label on the front that reads "Prevent falls! Never use on any elevated surface." The warning was also added to packaging and instruction manuals.
Since the recall, at least 33 infant skull fractures linked to the Bumbo have been reported, according to the CPSC, which issued a warning to parents in November. Citing "grave concerns," a coalition of children's health and advocacy groups last month urged the agency to remove the popular seats from the market until the safety issues are resolved.
Bumbo International says the $40 contoured seat, which hugs an infant's hips, is safe when used properly. Since 2003, Bumbo has sold nearly 4 million of the chairs in the U.S. and 7 million worldwide. "The safety and health of all children who use the Bumbo seat is the company's foremost priority," Rene Tolmay, a spokeswoman for the South Africa-based company, said in an email.
Julie and Judd Peak, both attorneys, declined to speak about the specifics of their case, which has been settled. Their son has recovered. They stand by the allegations in the complaint, including that the safety warning doesn't mention the possibility of escape from the Bumbo and that it implies there is risk only when the product is used off the floor.
Deel, 29, now getting her master's in school counseling at Roosevelt University in Chicago, still gets choked up when she talks about the accident involving the Peaks' baby, which occurred when she was working for the family in Tennessee. Now, when she baby-sits and finds a Bumbo in the house, she warns the family and steers clear of it.
"It's supposed to be designed so you don't have to worry the child will fall over, especially when they're smaller," said Deel, who has remained close to the Peak family. "There's a false security that goes on — an extra set of hands — which was not my experience with it."
Bumbo says it believes the additional warnings have reduced the number of falls from elevated surfaces. On Bumbousa.com, it reminds parents that "babies are active and curious, and may wiggle out of the Seat." It also argues that the Bumbo has a low injury rate when compared with the thousands of children injured by bouncy seats, chairs, car seats and sofas each year.
According to the CPSC, at least 46 infants were reported to have toppled out of the Bumbos placed on elevated surfaces prior to the 2007 recall. Since then, at least 45 more falls from raised or unstable surfaces have been reported. In addition, CPSC says there are 50 reported falls from the Bumbo when it was used on the floor or at an unknown elevation.
The CPSC would not comment on the child health and advocacy coalition's request for another recall, but spokesman Scott Wolfson said it does "take the letter seriously."
Records show that babies 10 months and younger have reportedly whacked their heads or bloodied their mouths and noses on ceramic tile floors, granite countertops, toilets, kitchen tables and islands, and toys after falling from Bumbos. A 7-month-old Milwaukee boy broke his right leg after he launched backward out of a Bumbo placed on the floor, according to documents obtained as part of a lawsuit. He underwent two surgeries.
The seats, which can be used only for a few months but last years, also are popular on the secondhand market, where consumers may not see the original instruction manuals or may unknowingly buy pre-recall models that lack the new warning.
Unlike cribs, car seats and high chairs, there are no safety standards or testing requirements for the Bumbo, said Nancy Cowles, executive director of Kids in Danger, one of the groups urging the CPSC to recall the product. Manufacturers of similar products, such as the Prince Lionheart Bebe Pod, have made design changes by adding a safety harness. Bumbo still markets its seat as having "no uncomfortable straps or bracing clips."
"Testing and analysis of the Bumbo seat demonstrates that it is safe for its intended use on the floor," Tolmay said. Having safety straps might make parents think it could be used safely on elevated surfaces, she said.
The Bumbo seat was initially called the Bumbo Baby Sitter, which some parents assumed meant that children could be left unattended. It was also marketed for use on elevated surfaces, a perception that still exists. The original ads showed children sitting atop a kitchen table, piano bench or counter while being fed. Pre-recall packaging contained a photo of children sitting on the table at a birthday party, unsupervised.
Portable and easy to clean, the Bumbo is often used for feeding and thus naturally placed on a table. Using a Bumbo also can also buy precious time needed to wash dishes, prepare food or throw a load of laundry in the dryer.
Chicago's Erin Papuga said she finds the Bumbo useful for feeding her 7-month-old daughter, Caroline, but always uses it on the floor. "I can walk a foot or two away to grab a spoon or cloth to wipe her face," said Papuga.
"Even with a safety harness the baby could topple over," she said. "You just have to use it with caution."
Babies often try to break out of the confining seat with surprising vigor. Such attempts, some of them successful, have been recorded by parents and posted on YouTube for laughs, a practice the CPSC discourages.
For Bumbo critics, these videos — which frequently show the Bumbo on elevated surfaces — are chilling proof that parents don't understand the potential dangers. A common misperception is that it's fine to use the Bumbo up high, as long as a parent is supervising.
In 2009, Michael Fisher's then-wife was feeding their 6-month-old son as he sat in a Bumbo on the dining room table. Between spoonfuls, the infant suddenly flailed his arms in the air and leaned back, falling backward off the table, out of his mother's reach. "I literally caught him on a hop after his head hit the floor," said Fisher, of Waukegan, who had been walking in from the kitchen.
The boy's skull was fractured. Now 3 years old, his speech is delayed but he has otherwise recovered, said Fisher. "We never would have left him unattended," he said. "When you buy it, it looks safe. I was shocked when it fell and launched him out."
Still, even parents who know about the potential dangers don't necessarily take them seriously.
Maria Harkin, of Leavenworth, Kan., said she routinely puts her 7-month-old son, Alexander, on the kitchen island in the Bumbo so he can watch her cook.
Harkin is well aware of the risk: The daughter of a friend, Jennifer Mix, suffered a skull fracture at 9 months after falling backward off a kitchen island while in a Bumbo. Mix, who threw her Bumbo away when she returned from the hospital, called the experience with her daughter Shelby, now 5, the most frightening of her life.
But Harkin said the product is "super handy."
"At times, (my son) is leaning completely backward but we know he's not coming out," she said. "He's almost like the centerpiece. I love it. You can warn me all you want, but I will still put the Bumbo up high."