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Diane Mastrull: A baby-products company evolves, through good times and bad

To local sports enthusiasts, Leslie Gudel is likely best known for her Phillies reporting and anchoring on Comcast SportsNet. To another category of fan, Gudel might not be known at all. But her portable baby recliners sure are.

To local sports enthusiasts, Leslie Gudel is likely best known for her Phillies reporting and anchoring on Comcast SportsNet.

To another category of fan, Gudel might not be known at all. But her portable baby recliners sure are.

Since they hit the market in early 2009, Nap Nanny and its current derivation, Nap Nanny Chill, have delivered countless parents from the spirit-crushing torture of life with an infant who would rather cry than sleep.

Among the grateful are celebrity moms Sandra Bullock and Jewel — or so suggest magazine pictures, gift registries, and personal expressions of thanks Gudel has received.

Nap Nanny is premised on the seemingly magical sleep-promoting powers of car seats, yet it is designed for a safer snooze. For one, a baby in a Nap Nanny sits at a 30-degree angle, a gentler incline than a car seat offers. Made of high-density foam and a fitted fabric cover, Nap Nanny is contoured to a 40-degree angle at the feet to help prevent a baby from sliding forward out of it. A three-point harness assists.

Priced at $129.99 each, more than 100,000 recliners have sold, and Gudel's company, Baby Matters L.L.C., based in her Berwyn home with manufacturing done in Reading, exceeded $1 million in sales its first year.

The second year would bring a tragic development: the death of a 4-month-old Michigan girl while sleeping in a Nap Nanny that, contrary to product instructions, had been placed in a crib. The recliner is for use on the floor only.

Juliette Thiel's asphyxiation death on July 9, 2010, reportedly was caused when her head got caught between the recliner and the crib bumper, haunts Gudel as a mother of two.

"It just crushed me," an emotional Gudel, 45, said in an interview last week. That a product she had designed to bring relief to parents would be linked to the "severe mental disturbance … emotional distress … mental anguish" of two Michigan parents, as Brian Thiel and Kristine Mako have alleged in a wrongful-death lawsuit filed against Baby Matters in U.S. District Court in Detroit, "was devastating for me," Gudel said.

The novice entrepreneur with a staff of 13 (mostly mothers) said the litigation, which seeks unspecified damages, has been a gut-wrenching lesson on product liability and unintended uses.

"You have to know when you make a product that it can be used wrong," Gudel said.

Her evolution from sports broadcasting to business owner was inspired by practical concerns. Her first child, daughter Kendall, was born in February 2004 without much of a sleeping gene. That meant Gudel wasn't sleeping, either.

"Forget waterboarding," she said, laughing. "Lack of sleep with a newborn is probably the greatest torture."

Rather than subject Kendall to hours of endless crying in the crib, Gudel said she resorted to lying down with her on her chest, or putting her in a swing or car seat — admittedly, none of them ideal sleeping arrangements.

Gudel kept talking about creating a safer alternative until her husband, Jaime Kemm, a state police sergeant, urged her to turn that talk into action. She would chip away at it, sketching designs, filing for patents, and lining up manufacturers all while having a second child, son Chase, born in 2005 with no sleeping issues.

Start-up funds came from Gudel's father, Al Gudel, 72, now retired from a title company in Southern California he ran for years.

"She didn't ask me for any financing, I volunteered," Al Gudel said last week during an interview from Las Vegas, where he had gone to help his daughter represent Nap Nanny Chill at ABC Kids Expo. He would not disclose the amount of his investment but said, "I find this baby-products thing very interesting — and very confusing at times."

For one, there is no consensus among pediatricians on the acceptability of babies sleeping on their backs at an incline. Lying flat is "considered a safer sleep environment" because there is no risk of a head flopping forward, causing an airway obstruction, said GarryGardner, an Illinois pediatrician who is also chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Injury, Violence and Poison Prevention. The AAP recommends that "babies sleep flat on their back in a firm-mattress crib or bassinet," Gardner said.

"There are certain exceptions we make for everything," countered Jeannette Levenstein, a pediatrician in Encino, Calif., who even lends Nap Nanny recliners to her patients. She considers the seat especially helpful for babies with acid reflux and other gastrointestinal or esophageal problems. She called the Nap Nanny "very innovative."

Only two companies are believed to be on the market with an "incline sleep" product for infants and young children.

Gudel's original patent application was for a recliner to be used in a crib, which the pending wrongful-death lawsuit notes in asserting that Juliette Thiel's parents were not at fault in using the Nap Nanny the way they did.

What the patent said is irrelevant, Leslie Gudel said, noting that all marketing materials and warning labels have consistently said the recliners should be used only on the floor.

Larry Bennett, a Michigan lawyer for Juliette's parents, declined comment.

Four months before Juliette's death, the Consumer Product Safety Commission notified Gudel that it had received two incident reports on Nap Nanny — one involving a cut forehead sustained by a 5-month-old boy whose head became entrapped between the recliner and the side of a crib the seat had been placed in. Despite being harnessed in the seat, the child had fallen sideways out of the Nap Nanny, according to commission documents. The other report involved a 10-week-old boy who, while restrained in a Nap Nanny, partially fell over the side and was found uninjured hanging with his neck bent backward about an inch from the floor.

In May 2010, the commission recommended improvements to the harness and to Nap Nanny warning labels and instructions.

Gudel and the commission were in negotiations over voluntary corrective action when the Thiel infant died. Within weeks, the commission and Baby Matters announced a voluntary recall of 30,000 Nap Nanny recliners. Depending on the recliner model they owned, affected consumers were urged to contact the company for an $80 coupon toward purchase of a newer model or visit to get new product instructions and warnings. There, the company also posted a video to show consumers how to properly fasten the harness.

The newest model, Nap Nanny Chill, has slightly higher sides and a more snug contour, to further limit the ability of infants to turn sideways while in the seat, Gudel said. Warnings about using the recliner only on the floor are prominently displayed.

The recall probably cost the company about $1 million in sales, Gudel said, yet overall sales continued to grow through that time.

What she needs now, Gudel said, is a partner to finance the conversion of other ideas she has for marketable baby products.

What motivates her to continue in such a challenging industry?

"Testimonials like the mom who said, 'Thank you for giving me my life back,'?" Gudel said. "Sleep is so valuable."

Contact Diane Mastrull at 215-854-2466,, or follow @mastrud on Twitter.