Why is a product blamed for infant deaths in the United States still available in Canada?

Last month, the popular Rock ‘n Play sleeper was recalled in the US after 32 babies died in the reclined device. How come it hasn’t been banned in Canada, and why do some parents still swear by it?

Photo: Walmart.ca

A popular infant sleeper recalled in the United States is still available in Canada for a simple reason: labelling.

Fisher-Price recalled the Rock ‘n Play Sleeper on April 12, 2019 after an investigation by Consumer Reports linked the inclined sleeper to 32 deaths. Consumer Reports says its ongoing investigation is based on data from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, as well as reviews of lawsuits and interviews with doctors, engineers and government and industry officials.

But Health Canada says the Canadian version of the product, the Rock ‘n Play Soothing Seat, is still available because it was never marketed as a sleeper here.

“Health Canada is aware of the Fisher Price Rock ’n Play Soothing Seat,” a spokesperson said in an email. “Since this seat is not intended for sleep, it is not subject to the Cribs, Cradles and Bassinets Regulations,” they said, adding that the department has not received reports of any health and safety incidents regarding the product in Canada between June 20, 2011, and April 15, 2019.

baby standing up in a crib with a soother looking grumpy The 10 most dangerous baby productsWhile it’s called a sleeper in the United States and a soothing seat in Canada, the products appear to be identical, but with different words on the box. Mattel, which owns Fisher-Price, confirmed the products are “similar in design” but have different intended uses. “The Fisher-Price Soothing Seat is sold exclusively as a playtime and soothing seat for infants and is not intended as sleeping accommodation for an unsupervised child,” a Mattel spokesperson said in an email.

Paediatrician Michael Dickinson, speaking on behalf of the Canadian Paediatric Society, says the fact that this seat is still available to Canadian parents is “crazy.”

“We know that babies in the United States are identical to the babies here in Canada. We know that Canadian parents are probably going to use the device similarly to how it was used in the United States. It makes no sense that a device that has already been recognized as potentially harmful, lethal to babies would be allowed to be sold and distributed in Canada.”

Take Toronto mom of two Sarah Henderson,* who ended up buying the Rock ‘n Play on Amazon at 3 a.m. one night. She knew the safe sleep guidelines recommended infants sleep on their backs, on a hard, flat surface—and not on (or with) a parent. But she was desperate for a solution to her sleep issues. Specifically, her newborn daughter needed to be bounced continuously for two hours before Henderson could transfer her into a bassinet. “She would nurse to sleep if I held her, but as soon as I transferred her, she would pop awake, and we’d need to start the whole process again,” says Henderson. “We were destroyed.

Henderson’s American friends had been using the Rock ‘n Play for nighttime sleep and singing its praises for years. Compared to other options, like co-sleeping, it seemed somewhat safer. And as it turned out, it worked: in the bassinet, Henderson’s baby slept in 30-minute chunks. In the Rock ‘n Play, she slept for three-hour stretches.

Dickinson says he sympathizes with parents like Henderson, desperate for a few continuous hours of shut-eye. “At the end of the day, parents have to weigh the pros and cons of what they are trying to deal with, but the safest place for babies to sleep is on their back in a proper sleeping area,” he says. “Anything where babies are tipped up, there is a certainly a possibility for their head to fall forward. Any of the sleeping areas that are padded, there’s a risk of suffocation if a baby rolls themselves or rocks themselves into a position where their nose and mouth are obstructed by the padding.”

It’s actually because of these safety concerns that the Rock ‘n Play is called a soothing seat, not a sleeper, in Canada in the first place. In 2011, Health Canada expressed concerns to Mattel that the product didn’t meet its requirements for safe sleep—for example, that babies should be placed on their back in a crib, cradle or bassinet—leading to the difference in labelling and marketing here. 

The Canadian Paediatric Society thinks the Canadian government needs to take another look. It wrote to health minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor on April 11, 2019, expressing concerns over the Rock ‘n Play. “While we are grateful Health Canada has not approved this product as a sleeper in Canada, these reports highlight a lack of public awareness of the risks of leaving an infant unattended in such devices, and the easy availability of the U.S.-branded and marketed ‘Fisher Price Rock ‘N Play Sleeper’ in Canada, including through many popular online retailers.” The CPS has not received a reply to its letter.


Listen to Ariel Brewster and Claire Gagne talk about the Rock ‘n Play’s status in Canada on The Big Story podcast.

Learn more at The Big Story Podcast.


The recall notice issued by Fisher-Price states: “Infant fatalities have occurred in Rock ‘n Play Sleepers, after the infants rolled from their back to their stomach or side while unrestrained, or under other circumstances.” However, according to Consumer Reports, Fisher-Price says it doesn’t believe its product is to blame in the deaths; instead it cited “the many situations where a medical/health condition was identified as the cause of death, and/or those in which the product was clearly used in a manner contrary to the safety warnings and instructions.”

In an official statement, made on April 12, the company said it stands by the safety of the Rock ‘n Play. “However, due to reported incidents in which the product was used contrary to the safety warnings and instructions, we have decided to conduct a voluntary recall of the Rock ‘n Play Sleeper in partnership with the Consumer Product Safety Commission.”

After the American recall, many parents continued to defend their beloved Rock ‘n Play—a product they had relied on to survive the gruelling sleep deprivation of the newborn months. They attributed the infant deaths to misuse, failure to read the labels, and a lack of vigilance. Then there were the seasoned moms telling new moms to suck it up and deal with the sleep deprivation, as they had, instead of resorting to products like the Rock ‘n Play. But that’s not helpful to someone struggling to function, let alone make the safest, most well-informed choices for their teeny infant. What if all the options feel unsafe? How do you weigh the risks?

While Henderson felt anxious about not following the sleep guidelines, she also felt like she had no choice. “[The guidelines] are so out of touch with what many babies require to sleep that they leave you feeling even more confused and ashamed of whatever ‘sleep crutch’ you pick,” she says. “Unless you have a unicorn baby who will sleep alone, unswaddled, on a cold, hard rock, parents of newborns have to pick their poison. And I think the Rock ‘n Play was a particularly seductive poison because of its ubiquity and branding.”

By the time news of the U.S. recall broke last month, Henderson had also read the Consumer Reports story and found a class action lawsuit against Fisher-Price online. She was horrified she’d been using such a dangerous product. “I couldn’t even look at the Rock ‘n Play anymore,” she says. “I called a junk removal service and told them, ‘Just get it out of here.’ I didn’t want to risk someone taking it from the curb on garbage day.”

*Name has been changed.

Read more:
What you need to know about the new safe sleep guidelines for babies
7 sleep mistakes new parents make
The dangerous ways parents are using their DockATots

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