Time to ban bumpers

Finally, the description of Maryland as a "nanny state" could actually apply — and it's a good thing.

Late last week, a state task force recommended that crib bumpers, the padded liners used on the inside of baby cribs, be declared a hazard. They have been associated with cases of asphyxiation where infants may have accidentally wedged their faces between the soft liner and crib mattress or become tangled with the strings that attach the bumpers to the crib slats.

If Maryland Health and Mental Hygiene Secretary Joshua M. Sharfstein accepts the proposed regulations, Maryland could be the first state in the nation to ban their sale. That is the sort of leadership role that Dr. Sharfstein, a former city health commissioner and FDA deputy commissioner — not to mention a pediatrician — ought to embrace.

Manufacturers have often disputed the claim that the bumpers are a hazard. They believe the scientific evidence is less than conclusive and have argued that liners serve a good purpose by preventing babies from striking their heads against crib frames. But the risk of a bruised head (if babies can even hit the slats with enough force for that to happen) pales in comparison to what has happened to some children across the country.

Independent studies have documented dozens of cases where babies have been killed or injured in incidents involving bumpers over the last 20 years. In Maryland, there's been at least one death attributed to the use of bumpers and nine incidents of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS, where bumpers were in use and may have been a contributing factor in the baby's death.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission has, unfortunately, taken no position on crib bumpers to date. But that's no reason for local public health agencies not to take action now and potentially save lives.

The American Academy of Pediatrics already recommends against the use of "pillows, pillow-like bumper pads, quilts, comforters, sheepskins, stuffed toys and other soft products" in the cribs of infants. But parents aren't necessarily aware of those recommendations when they go to purchase bed linens for a crib, and makers aren't required to post warnings.

And while the number of babies killed through bumper-related suffocation is relatively small, there's really no compelling reason for such bumpers to exist. As Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, Howard County's health officer, noted last week, they exist for aesthetic reasons, and if banning them only saves one life, it would be well worth the effort.

Critics can argue that state-level bans might only serve to confuse things further, since parents can purchase their linens outside their own state and Maryland's proposed regulation wouldn't make it illegal to use them. And no doubt those who complain about the rise of nanny states would prefer that parents be the ones to make the call — just as they must be the ones to make sure babies sleep on their backs instead of their stomachs to lessen the chance of SIDS.

Yet until there's action on the federal level — or makers voluntarily withdraw potentially harmful products from the shelves — the public good that is served easily outweighs the possibility of bureaucratic overreach. Even delaying action in the hope that the safety commission would finally step in and ban the product on a nationwide basis would present an unnecessary and unacceptable risk to the youngest and most vulnerable among us.

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