When Stacey Garska Rodriguez brought her second child home in July, there was no question about where the baby would nap: in a Fisher-Price Rock 'n Play Sleeper in the family's living room.
"It's something just about every parent uses," said Rodriguez, 34, whose older daughter, age 4, also used the cradle. "We all love it."
So when Rodriguez heard last week that the popular baby item had been recalled following 32 infant deaths, she was "completely shocked." She had raved about the Rock 'n Play for years, written about it on her blog and recommended it to friends.
"You use a product thinking it's safe, and then news like this comes out and you realize, wow, maybe you dodged a bullet," said Rodriguez, who runs a blog in Houston. "It's scary, and you feel guilty that maybe you had this false sense of security."
Last week’s recall of nearly 5 million Rock 'n Plays hit close to home for sleep-deprived parents who have turned to the Fisher-Price product for a moment of reprieve — or a night’s sleep — since it was introduced a decade ago. The cloth-covered cradle, which vibrates, plays music and positions the baby at an incline. At $40 to $150, it is a staple of baby registries and must-have lists. It is also sometimes recommended by pediatricians for infants with congestion or acid reflux.
But on Friday, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission officially issued a recall, saying consumers should immediately stop using them. The American Academy of Pediatrics called the product "deadly," and reiterated that infants should not sleep on products that are inclined or require restraining a baby. "Infants should always sleep on their back, on a separate, flat and firm sleep surface without any bumpers or bedding," said Rachel Moon, who leads the group's Task Force on SIDS.
The news set off a whirlwind of emotions for parents, who said they were shocked, frustrated and angered that the Rock 'n Play had remained on shelves so long. They were also confused, they said, that details of the incidents were difficult to come by. What exactly had happened?
Original reports had said that 10 babies, all older than 3 months, had died when they rolled over while unrestrained in the cradle. But last week, a Consumer Reports investigation found that at least 32 children had died, including some younger than 3 months, who had died from asphyxia when they were unable to breathe in the cloth-covered cradle.
Fisher-Price is offering full cash refunds for Rock 'n Plays purchased in the past six months. Sleepers bought before that are eligible for a voucher toward a new Fisher-Price product. The company said it will take three to four months to process the recalls, and is asking parents to disassemble their Rock n' Plays and send back the two hub pieces that hold the cradle together.
"It feels like mental whiplash," said Heather Lenox, 36, a mother of five in Cedarberg, Wisc. "This is a product that's supposed to be helpful, but now all of a sudden you're telling me it's harmful."
Lenox said she bought a Rock 'n Play four years ago after her pediatrician recommended putting her baby to sleep on an incline to ease symptoms of congestion and acid reflux. (Her doctor’s alternative suggestion — putting rolled up towels under a crib mattress — seemed “like an accident waiting to happen,” she said.)
"If our children are truly in danger, we need to have a clear explanation of why," said Lenox, whose children, ages 5 months to 6 years, routinely napped in the Rock 'n Play as infants. "There needs to be a focus on re-education."
Pediatricians and sleep consultants say they've received an influx of calls and emails from worried parents. "The first reaction that I'm hearing is shock," said Jilly Blankenship, a pediatric nurse and baby sleep consultant in San Francisco. "Then bewilderment about what on earth they're going to do now."
Blankenship said she has been telling parents for years that the device does not meet standards for safe sleep, but parents often turn to the Rock 'n Play as a last resort, when their babies have trouble staying asleep in a crib or bassinet.
"They're often desperate and saying, 'What do we do now if our baby won't sleep anywhere else?'" she said. (Her YouTube video about weaning babies from Rock 'n Plays has had a spike in viewership in the past week. Among her recommendations: gradually stop using the vibration function, and try swaddling the baby.)
Miana Tompkins, 28, has spent the last week transitioning her 4-month-old son out of a Rock 'n Play and into his bassinet. She began using the rocker as soon as she came home from the hospital, she said, because it helped with her son's acid reflux.
"If I tried to lay him flat, he'd cough and choke," said Tompkins, a real estate agent in Alexandria. "This was the only way he could keep his milk down and actually get some sleep."
But between the recall and his newfound interest in rolling, Tompkins says she's putting away the rocker for good.
“We’re not going to use it again, but the whole situation is just unfortunate,” she said. “Every single parent I know uses a Rock 'n Play — literally everybody. It was the number one recommended item at my baby shower.”
When Dan Callahan and his pregnant wife moved from Minneapolis to Belfast in late 2017, they packed a Rock 'N Play. His son, now 1, napped in the cradle for the first three months. Callahan is planning to keep it for now — in case they have another child — but says he will hold off on using it again until “we’ve made sure it’s actually safe.”
Callahan's not alone in keeping the contraption. The rocker is so popular that some parents, even knowing about the recall, cannot imagine getting through the day without it.
Joanna Banks relied on it to help soothe her daughter, now 2.
"It vibrates, so it would calm my daughter down especially if I needed to go to the bathroom or catch my breath," said Banks, 31, a retirement specialist at the investment firm T. Rowe Price, in Tampa, Florida. "It really was a godsend."
After her daughter outgrew the cradle, she lent it to her sister. After that, it sat in a pile of unused baby gear until October, when sold the Rock 'n Play in a neighborhood garage sale.
But now she's regretting her decision.
"I'm like, 'oh crap,' " she said. "We're thinking of having a third child. What am I going to do without a Rock 'n Play?"
Rachel Tombari, who has a 2-year-old, has no plans to return her rocker, which is stashed in the attic for future children.
"When we heard about the recall, my friends and I all had the same reaction: Total shock," said Tombari, 32, a therapist in West Orange, New Jersey.