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Monday February 28, 2022

OPINION: CPSC Vote to Restrict Play Yard Mattress Thickness to 1.5 Inches Ignores Agency Data and Increases the Risk of Infant Death

This is an independently written opinion piece, unedited by PSL.


PSL welcomes such articles – and responses to them.


Inclusion is not an indication of agreement or disagreement – simply that the contents likely are of interest to readers.


Carol Pollack-Nelson, PhD. is a Human Factors Psychologist with her own firm, Independent Safety Consulting, LLC She was employed at CPSC from Feb. 1988 through Sep. 1993 as a Senior Engineering Psychologist, Division of Human Factors.


Alan Schoem, Esq. is a sole practitioner with his own law firm, The Law Office of Alan H. Schoem, LLC and was employed at CPSC from 1973-2004. He was the Director of the Office of Compliance from 1997- 2004.


Corey Campbell is the President and owner of DECA Consulting, Inc., an independent consulting firm in design and safety for children’s products and car seats.

Several weeks ago, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), ignoring its own data, and despite its good intentions, enacted a rule that in our view unnecessarily exposes infants to an increased risk of death in play yards. CPSC is charged with protecting the public from unreasonable risks of injury and death from consumer products, and historically has prided itself on following the data. But contrary to its own data, this Commission apparently has bowed to pressure from outside the agency in deciding to perpetuate an archaic requirement for play yard mattresses.


The requirement at issue is a new mandatory CPSC standard for crib and play yard mattresses that limits the thickness of play yard mattress pads - including the attached wood flooring that serves as the floor of play yards- to 1 ½ inches thick. The new mandatory CPSC standard further limits the mattress filling material (such as foam or fiberfill) in aftermarket mattresses, to 1 inch. While these provisions have actually existed for original equipment play yard mattresses for many years, this requirement would remove all thicker aftermarket play yard mattresses from the market. Properly fitted aftermarket mattresses have utility in that they allow consumers to safely use a 2- to 3-inch padded mattress with a play yard instead of the thin, hard mattress that comes with the play yard. In fact, tens of millions of consumers have purchased and safely used 2- to 3-inch aftermarket play yard mattresses for more than a decade. Yet, the new rule, would prohibit such mattresses, leaving consumers with no safe product to use with their play yard to make the sleeping surface more comfortable for their babies.


A major problem with this new mandatory rule is that it ignores decades of CPSC fatality data and\ consumer research demonstrating that the thickness requirements – particularly the 1-inch limitation on foam – have become detrimental to consumer safety. That mattress thickness limit made sense when play yards were used primarily for playing but the product has evolved into one often used primarily for sleeping. It is detrimental because consumers consider the play yard floor to be too hard. After all, 1- inch of padding over a wood floor is not much. In fact, most play yards sold today do not even have 1-inch of padding. To ensure compliance, manufacturers must provide mattresses with less than 1-inch of foam so as not to exceed the 1-inch limit when manufacturing tolerances are taken into account. There are also a significant number of play yards on the market that, to offer a low retail price point and/or improved portability, limit the padding in the mattress to as little as 3/8 inch thick.


With so little padding, it is no surprise that parents perceive play yard mattress pads to be too hard and uncomfortable for their babies! To soften the surface, consumers routinely add soft bedding, blankets, pillows, even couch cushions under their baby in a play yard. Well-intentioned parents often do not realize that soft bedding placed under their baby presents a suffocation risk. This hazard pattern was confirmed in a study of crib and mattress fatalities conducted by CPSC from 2010 through March 2020 which found that one of the primary causes of suffocation deaths in play yards and cribs is the addition of soft bedding (e.g., blankets and pillows) to the sleep area.1




1 Human Factors Assessment of Identified Hazards Associated with Crib Mattresses, Non-Full-Size-Crib Mattresses, After-market Mattresses for Play Yards and Non-Full-Size Cribs, in the Staff Briefing Package for the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for Crib Mattresses, p. 92.


2 Durable Nursery Products Exposure Survey (DNPES), Final Summary Report, Westat, November 2014.


3 Human Factors Assessment of Identified Hazards Associated with Crib Mattresses, Non-Full-Size-Crib Mattresses, After-market Mattresses for Play Yards and Non-Full-Size Cribs, in the Staff Briefing Package for the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for Crib Mattresses, pp. 93-94.


4 Caregiver Reactions to Safety Messaging, Final Report, Fohrs Marsh, 2019.


5 Staff Briefing Package, Analysis of Fatality Data in Play Yards, Jan 1 2000 to Dec 31 2016.

To better understand consumer perceptions and use of play yards (and other products), CPSC commissioned two consumer research studies, published in 2014 and 2019. In both studies, consumers reported that play yard mattresses are too hard, and this prompts them to add soft bedding to the sleep space. In fact, in one study, 75% of play yard users reported placing an item, other than the intended mattress, under their child in the play yard.2 Sixty-two percent of respondents reported placing a blanket or quilt under the baby; 26% reported placing a pillow under the baby. This led CPSC staff to conclude "These findings suggest that consumers commonly add items to cribs, play yards, and non-full-size cribs for comfort, including soft bedding material."3 A subsequent focus group study commissioned by the CPSC corroborated the perception of parents and grandparents that the play yard surface is too hard and uncomfortable for their children, and this led them to place other items under their child in the play yard.4


A safer alternative to adding soft bedding under a baby in a play yard is to require a thicker mattress for the play yard. At the very least, a thicker mattress alternative (i.e., an after-market mattress) should be permitted in the market for consumers who consider the play yard floor to be too hard. Since at least 2011, consumers have been able to purchase 2- to 3-inch-thick aftermarket mattresses that are sized to fit their play yard, and which provide a safe and comfortable sleeping environment for their infants. It is estimated that tens of millions of these mattresses have been sold since 2012.


In 2015, a petition was filed with the CPSC requesting that the agency ban aftermarket play yard mattresses due to concerns of entrapment between the side of the mattress and the inside of the play yard. To ascertain the extent of entrapment incidents associated with aftermarket play yard mattresses, CPSC technical staff studied aftermarket mattress fatality data from 2000 through 2016. In that 17-year time period, they identified six entrapment incidents; however, all involved an undersized mattress. They found no entrapment risk in aftermarket mattresses that were sized to fit the play yard.5


Properly fitting 2- to 3-inch-thick aftermarket mattresses provide consumers with a safe alternative to the thin, hard mattress pad that comes with the play yard, and they do not pose an entrapment risk. An entrapment risk is only presented when a mattress does not fit a play yard; this same risk exists if an undersized mattress is used in a crib. The agency’s decision to limit the thickness of aftermarket mattresses to 1 1/2 inches, including a required floor board and with an additional restriction of 1 inch thickness on foam or fiberfill, perpetuates the perceived safety of a thinner mattress but does not improve actual safety of play yards. To the contrary – the agency’s decades of data demonstrates that thin, hard mattresses induce consumers to add soft bedding under their baby and this creates a suffocation risk.


CPSC is touting its new standard as one that protects infants. But, we believe it increases the risk of death because consumers who consider the existing play yard floor too hard will no longer be able to purchase a safe, 2- to 3-inch-thick aftermarket mattress. A better alternative - and one that is consistent with the agency’s fatality data and consumer studies - would be to allow aftermarket play yard mattresses that are designed to fit a play yard, and that have a thickness up to 3 inches so that consumers do not feel compelled to add blankets, pillows, and other soft bedding to soften the play yard floor.


Consumers look to the CPSC to help them understand what is safe vs what is not. To parse out what is actually safe from "perceived safety," the CPSC can and should rely on its extensive data. Failing to do so will not make infants safer nor will it lead to an actual reduction in sleep fatalities.