In an Era of Unrealistic Expectations on Moms, Product Safety Is a Feminist Issue

Companies have developed a tendency of blaming accidents of shocking children’s deaths on parents—even if their unsafe products are the real culprits.

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Responsibility for infant and child safety is often gendered as a mother’s primary task. (Creative Commons)

In the midst of the holiday season, the pressure on parents to select the perfect gift for every member of their family can feel overwhelming. Adding to this stress is the question of safety—is this toy a toddler choking hazard? Will this scooter send us straight to the ER?

These may feel like risks that we know how t­­­o assess. Perhaps more insidious are the products we assume to be thoroughly tested, vetted and monitored by both their makers and regulatory agencies. However, in an era of “intensive mothering”—one in which mothers are expected to endlessly optimize their child’s potential through enriching activities and carefully curated nutrition—responsibility for infant and child safety is often gendered as a mother’s primary task. These responsibilities range from baby-proofing the home, to purchasing the right products, to remaining endlessly vigilant in supervision and care. Increasingly, child safety is treated as a matter of personal responsibility, with individual parents held responsible for outcomes outside of their control. 

At the same time that parental accountability has increased, social safety nets in the United States have weakened, while the scope and authority of regulatory agencies that protect consumers remains limited. This is exemplified in an open letter released in March, 2021, by fitness company Peloton’s CEO John Foley. Foley was writing in response to a “small number of incidents” that had recently been linked to the fitness company’s popular treadmill, the Tread Plus.

One of these “small incidents” was the death of a child, in addition to dozens of additional injuries to children and small pets. Foley downplayed Peloton’s safety role, stating that the company does their part to create a safe product—but that to prevent accidents, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, “we need your help.” The letter directed readers to keep children and pets away from the treadmill, and to store the safety key (needed to activate the machine) out of reach of children. Responses like this one indicate that even in the face of severe injury and death of children, corporations weaponize personal and parental responsibility to downplay their own accountability for consumer safety.

Even in the face of severe injury and death of children, corporations weaponize personal and parental responsibility to downplay their own accountability for consumer safety.

In April of 2019, Fisher-Price and parent company Mattel recalled 4.7 million of their Rock ‘n Play inclined sleepers after the device was linked to the suffocation deaths of over 50 infants. The recall, while voluntary, had been weeks in the making. Mattel had resisted removing their best-selling product from the market, insisting the Rock ‘n Play was safe, and the risk to infants was introduced by parents who utilized the sleeper incorrectly. This was surely a shock to parents whose infants had suffocated in the device, or suffered “near miss” suffocations.

The Rock ‘n Play was advertised as a device that babies could sleep in all night long—one class-action suit notes that the word “sleeper” or “sleep” was used five times on the product packaging. The padded infant seat of the Rock ‘n Play reclined to a 30-degree angle, purportedly to reduce reflux in babies and promote longer lasting sleep, not flat and firm, as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Later investigation revealed that Fisher-Price failed to have the Rock ‘n Play thoroughly tested for safety by a third-party before it was introduced to the market. In fact, the lone doctor who was consulted on the product was not a pediatrician, and was eventually found to be practicing medicine without a license.

That this product was able to make it to the market without adequate testing raises significant questions about how infant safety products are regulated in the U.S., and who is considered ultimately responsible for ensuring children’s health.

The agency that creates federal safety rules for infant products in the United States is the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). The CPSC was created as an independent federal regulatory agency by Congress in 1972 as part of the Consumer Product Safety Act. Its stated mission is to create voluntary and mandatory safety standards, obtain recalls of products deemed dangerous, conduct research and educate the public. After its passage, the Consumer Product Safety Commission was criticized for its lack of sufficient oversight of product safety—particularly concerning safety concerns in children’s products, such as lead in toys and unsafe cribs. The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act was passed in 2008 to strengthen the CPSC’s mandate, including the power to enact mandatory standards for “durable infant sleep products.”

Yet because the creation of mandatory standards is a lengthy process, infant sleep products can be approved with only voluntary standards,

However, a report prepared for the House of Representatives shows that because the creation of mandatory standards is a lengthy process, infant sleep products can be approved with only voluntary standards—like those attached to the Rock ‘n Play. Voluntary standards are set by a non-governmental organization called ASTM International. Up to 50 percent of individuals on the committees that set these standards can be representatives of the manufacturers who make the product.

Consumer watchdog groups have also warned that the agency continues to lack the funding and staffing to adequately monitor the high volume of products it is meant to regulate. Additionally, the CPSC is the only federal safety agency that is hamstrung by a statute requiring extensive back-and-forth with the manufacturer of a dangerous product before publicly releasing any identifying information about that product to consumers—in this case, increasing the time period in which parents unwittingly put their babies to sleep in a device tilted at such an angle and with such materials that could cause suffocation.

The action (and inaction) by Fisher-Price shifted blame from the corporation to individual parents for outcomes that were beyond their ability to control. This tactic was echoed by Peloton when CEO Foley stated that the company does their part to create a safe product, but that to prevent accidents, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, they needed parent’s help. Safety reminders and direct address to users like this shift safety responsibility away from Peloton and back to the consumer, suggesting that resulting accidents were due to pandemic-frazzled parents failing to take basic precautions.

Safety reminders and direct address to users suggest that accidents were due to pandemic-frazzled parents failing to take basic precautions.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission warned consumers to stop using the treadmill in April 2021 after numerous small children and pets were “entrapped, pinned, and pulled under” the machine. Peloton released a statement describing the CPSC’s report as “inaccurate and misleading,” and reiterated that such incidents could be avoided if safety instructions were followed by consumers. They offered tips to parents such as exercising while their child naps, when a partner or spouse can supervise the child, or blocking access to the treadmill with a baby gate.

However, by May 5, 2021, Peloton and the CPSC agreed to issue a voluntary recall of the Tread Plus, and Foley apologized in a call to Wall Street analysts in response to an estimated $165 million in potential recall costs.

Both the Fisher-Price and Peloton responses indicate that even in the face of severe injury and death of children, corporations weaponize personal and parental responsibility to downplay their own accountability for consumer safety.

This is a feminist issue—given that the more the government encourages industry self-monitoring and consumer educational campaigns over regulation and federal oversight, the more the management of risk is transferred to individual families, and the gendered labor of mothers in particular.

While Peloton in particular is a high-end brand associated with middle and upper-class status, the safety issues raised by the Peloton Tread and Rock ‘n Play are particularly concerning for parents with the least economic security. Parents who are young, single, poor, non-citizens, substance using and non-white are not only more rhetorically and discursively likely to be positioned as “bad parents,” but also face greater surveillance, stigmatization and criminalization for their pregnancy and parenting practices.

While the tragic infant deaths in the Rock ‘n Play have led the CPSC to vote for new federal safety standards for infant sleep products, the need for a stronger CPSC, independent from industry influence and with fewer restraints on its authority to act quickly in the interests of consumers, remains.

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About

Laura Harrison is associate professor and chair of the Department of Gender and Women's Studies at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Her book Losing Sleep: Risk, Responsibility, and Infant Sleep Safety (NYU Press) will be available in the summer of 2022.