According to The American Academy of Pediatrics, a firm, well-fitting mattress with a waterproof cover and fitted sheet is all a baby needs to be safe and comfortable in bed. But many parents remain unconvinced, arguing that crib bumpers protect infants from bumps and bruises and prevent little arms and legs from becoming trapped between crib slats.
Frustrated by what they see as the "damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't" nature of traditional bumpers, some of these parents have turned to alternative products, such as mesh crib bumpers or crib slat pads, in an effort to find a safe solution.
But are these products really safe?
The unsatisfying answer? Maybe.
The Trouble With Bumpers
The AAP has long warned parents against the use of crib bumpers—and with good reason. Multiple studies have concluded that crib bumpers pose a significant threat to infants. One such study, published in The Journal of Pediatrics, attributed 27 accidental infant deaths to the use of crib bumpers and identified three specific causes of bumper-related deaths.
Some infants died after their faces became pressed up against the soft surface of the bumper, which either smothered them or caused them to slowly suffocate in a pocket of built-up carbon dioxide. Others were suffocated after becoming entrapped between the bumper and another object, such as a crib mattress. And some babies were strangled by bumper ties that came loose and got wrapped around their necks.
Alternative bumpers, such as the popular Breathable Baby brand of mesh bumpers, have been specially designed to address these concerns, allowing for increased airflow and replacing traditional ties with Velcro attachments.
Other products, like crib slat covers, attempt to protect babies from injuring themselves against the rails while using as little fabric as possible. For many parents, these products may seem like the perfect solution, providing all the benefit of traditional bumpers without the associated risks. But it may not be that simple.
On the surface, it stands to reason that alternative bumpers are a safer choice for your little one—and, indeed, they may be. However, it is important for parents to remember that few of these products have been independently tested, and no published data currently exists to suggest that they are any safer than traditional bumpers. Given the current lack of evidence supporting their safety claims and the substantiated, life-threatening risks associated with bumper use, parents should not rely on alternative bumpers to keep their children safe.
More Research Is Needed
Although specific products may have gained the admiration and even the recommendation of individual pediatricians and other "experts," the jury is still out on alternative crib bumpers. For its part, the AAP is happy to take the “better safe than sorry” approach, maintaining that all bumpers, including those specifically designed to prevent bumper-related death and injury, are best left out of the crib.
While the idea of your little one bumping their head or trapping an arm or leg may be unpleasant and scary, the experience is not likely to cause them serious injury. In fact, it's not likely at all, due to an infant's limited mobility.
If your baby does make contact with the side of the crib, minor bumps and bruises pose less of a risk than those associated with crib bumpers.
With any luck, further research may reveal that alternative bumpers are indeed a safe choice, preventing infants from suffering minor injuries while safeguarding them from SIDS-related hazards. But until these benefits are proven, why take the chance?