Kids' Health

Why Do Baby Cribs Have Bars Or Slats? A Pediatrician Explains

This is why cribs kind of look like jails.

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Cribs look like cages. There’s no mincing words—we surround our children with fluffy animals and whimsical toys by day and lock them up in ornate wooden jails cell by night. Fatherly asked a few experts why. The surprising answer? Because modern cribs evolved from Italian whiskey barrels, and parents are so nervous about changing sleep standards that even now, 300 years after whiskey barrel cribs gained prominence in 18th century Florence, our cribs have slats. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, says Michael Goodstein of the American Academy of Pediatrics Task Force on SIDS. “The sole purpose has always been to keep babies safe while parents slept,” told Fatherly.

Crib slats can trace their humble beginnings to The Art of Nursing a 1733 must-read that described the “arcuccio” or “arcutio”, which roughly translates to “little arch”. The idea was that nursing women would share a bed with their newborns but, to avoid rolling over and crushing them, place a half whiskey barrel with three slats over their children, forming a sort of protective shell. “Every nurse in Florence is obliged to lay in it, under pain of excommunication,” The Art of Nursing explaining, citing the then-popular punishment for accidental death of an infant. These proto-cribs came with an additional feature—semi circular cutouts, so women could breastfeed without removing the babies from their protective whiskey cages. It wasn’t technically a glory hole. But we’ll admit it sounds a lot like a glory hole.

Throughout the next century, babies moved from whiskey cages to bassinets, which were kept elevated to keep infants away from dangers on the ground. Cribs made a come back once parents realized that babies could crawl out of bassinets fairly easily. Early crib designers spurned wood in favor of iron, Goodstein says, and painted the cribs with lead-based paint. That backfired fantastically, and parents fled back to wooden cages, in the spirit of whiskey barrels.

Worried about the startling number of babies dying and sustaining injuries from poorly manufactured cribs, the first crib safety standards were released in 1973. The standards declared jail cell-style cribs safe, and parents breathed a collective sigh of relief, until 1976 when the guidelines were updated to include a warning about crib slats that were set too far apart. “What was happening was that babies were getting their heads entrapped in the slats, and asphyxiate from getting their heads and necks caught,” Goodstein says. In 1982, experts updated the guidelines again to outlaw cutouts in crib end panels. And in 1995, slats hit the spotlight again when the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission warned that if parents could fit a soda can through the crib slats, they were too far apart. And although experts had been warning about drop-side cribs for years, it wasn’t until 2011 that the CPSC duly banned the manufacturing and selling of drop-side cribs and also called for stronger slats and even then it took another six months to be enforced and two years for it to be implemented in hotels, rental properties, and child care organizations.

Which is all a long way of saying that crib standards are slow to evolve—and, as far as industry experts can tell, that’s essentially the reason why cribs still have slats even though ventilation could just as easily be achieved with the mesh used in mobile Pack ‘n Play cribs. There’s an industry (and parental) philosophy that there’s no real reason to fix what’s not broken—especially when it took so long to fix what was truly broken. And as more parents follow safe sleep practice and SIDS rates decline, there’s less information about what, if any, new designs would be better. “It’s good that SIDS rates are down, but it makes it harder to study to see what impact newer products and designs have,” Goodstein says.

So stick to the slats that work. They don’t have to know they’re sleeping in glorified whiskey barrels.

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