Safety Concerns Prompt Lawmakers to Mull Sales Ban on ‘Baby Walkers’

Lilo H. Stainton | February 15, 2019 | Health Care
More than 230,000 children were treated for injuries over 24 years; industry notes safety record is improving

Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Baby walker
Accidents involving baby walkers send roughly five infants to the hospital each day — some with serious, lasting injuries. And while the popular devices are safer now, some state lawmakers want to make the Garden State the first in the nation to ban their sale entirely.

On Thursday, a Senate panel approved legislation that would prohibit anyone from selling infant walkers in New Jersey, a policy enacted by Canada more than a decade ago, as well as a number of counties and municipalities here in the U.S.

“Interestingly, it seems we’d be the first state to do so,” said Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Mercer), the bill’s lone sponsor and chair of the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee, which voted to advance the measure. “The issue is they’re dangerous,” she said.

Baby or infant walkers — wheeled devices with a harness or seat that holds an infant in a walking position and enables them to move themselves around before they are physically able to stand — have existed for centuries and been a hit with millions of mothers.

But in recent decades, pediatricians and others have raised concerns about potential dangers of their use, especially during such a vulnerable time for children. Experts believe infant walkers limit muscle development and can slow a baby’s ability to do things like crawl, stand and walk.

“Of course, when you have something on wheels that hasn’t been modified, and if you get to a staircase you can tumble down, and many babies have; if you get to a swimming pool, you can tumble in, and you can hurt yourself in any number of ways,” Greenstein said. She questioned the value of baby walkers, other than as a “bit of a babysitting device.”

Greenstein introduced the proposed ban in October, following a new report that showed emergency rooms across the country treated nearly 2,000 children for baby-walker related injuries in 2014, the most recent data available; it was not immediately clear how many, if any, of these cases involved children in New Jersey. There is currently no Assembly version of the bill.

Pushback from the industry

Merchant representatives who opposed the New Jersey bill said the industry has taken many voluntary steps to bolster the safety of infant walkers — including changes to the wheel base to make them more stable, and improvements in materials used — that have driven down injury rates significantly.

“Injuries from infant walkers have been proactively addressed on multiple levels in recent decades,” said Alexandra Esielonis, a representative of the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association, who testified at the hearing.

Esielonis also raised concerns about conflicting state and national regulations and insisted that the federal standards now in place would pre-empt state laws. “These products are sold globally and nationally and consistency of safety regulations is a critical aspect of product development,” she said. Esielonis suggested that attorneys from the association had successfully challenged similar sales bans in other states.

The sole “no” vote on the legislation came from Sen. Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth), who said the “Libertarian in him” would not allow him to “pre-empt parental discretion” when it came to using the devices.

Most injuries come from falling down stairs

The bill emerged after a study was published online in September by the American Academy of Pediatrics, in which researchers found that more than 230,000 infants under 15 months old were treated in emergency rooms for injuries related to baby walkers between 1990 and 2014.

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Nine out of 10 were hurt falling down stairs — the majority tumbling more than 10 steps. Nearly three-fourths of those infants suffered harm to their head or neck, including a high number of skull fractures, as well as brain damage and broken bones.

The study was based on National Electronic Injury Surveillance System reports from hospitals around the nation and so did not catch injuries treated at clinics or in pediatricians’ offices.

While the vast majority of incidents involved stairs, the data also showed that a few children were burned, shocked, punctured or otherwise harmed when the fall brought them into contact with a hot, electrified or otherwise dangerous surface.

But the rate of injuries declined significantly during the 24 years included in the study, according to the researchers from the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, in Columbus, Ohio. Between 1990 and 2003, baby-walker injuries declined almost 85 percent, then dropped another 38 percent between 2003 and 2014, the study showed.

Pediatricians favor a ban

The authors suggest that voluntary mandatory federal safety standards, adopted in 2010, had some impact on the downward trend, but consumer education and public awareness likely made more of a difference before the regulatory change took effect.

Despite the decline in the number of incidents — the mark of fewer than 2,000 set in 2014 was down from more than 20,000 in 1990 — the American Academy of Pediatrics has continued its call for a national ban on baby walkers, which it first issued in 2001.

The issue also caught the eye of U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), who wrote to the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission in late October to ask what the agency is doing to address infant-walker incidents — including whether it was considering a sales ban.

Despite previous actions to make these items safer, too many children are still being harmed, Menendez maintained.

“As you know, infant walkers provide very young children who are not yet able to walk with increased mobility. Unfortunately, this increased mobility comes with a higher risk of dangerous falls and greater exposure to hazardous situations and environmental toxins,” Menendez wrote. He has yet to receive an answer.

The New Jersey bill (S-3122) makes it a civil offense for a person to sell any type of infant walker, which it defines as “a device used to assist babies with their mobility before they are walking.”

Strollers, carriages and bassinets are clearly exempted.

The legislation also includes a hefty fine for violators: $10,000 for the first offense and up to $20,000 for additional sales.