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Thursday, September 06, 2012

KidCo Peapod - product review and meta-review [guest post]

The Review

When Hannah was little, we spent a little time searching around for some kind of apparatus for her to sleep in while traveling. Very early in her life, she coslept with us, but we ended that after about 3.5 months, well before we started doing any serious traveling with her.

We’d gotten a hand-me-down Pack’n Play sort of thing, but even folded down it was awkwardly long and heavy. We looked at travel cribs, but most of what we saw seemed to be shrunk-down versions of our Pack’n Play. Less heavy and bulky than their bigger brethren, but still a lot of mass to be managing while on a trip.

Then we came across the KidCo Peapod. It’s a folding enclosed tent which is longest and broadest at the base, which is an oval sleeping area. There are mesh panels along most of the sides; one of the main mesh panels along one side zippers open and shut for access to the sleeping area, and other, opaque panels can be zipped or toggle-buttoned down or up as is appropriate for the situation. There’s also a pocket on the underside of the tent -- accessed via a zipper on the outside -- which holds an inflatable sleeping mat, which cushions the sleeping area from underneath.

Though there are few other variations in the product line, the main one is in size -- we got a Peapod Plus, which is a little bigger and heavier, but has more headroom before your child outgrows it.

For travel, the tent collapses down and the tentpole-like material that provides structure to the canopy curls in a tripartite sort of way, making the whole package circular. (The inflatable mat packs down separately.) Folded, the diameter of this disc is about 24 inches with maybe 5-6 inches of thickness.

We used our Peapod traveling with Hannah in 2009 and 2010. It performed very well. It was straightforward to pack or carry separately -- sometimes as a carryon bag on a plane -- and fairly quick to set up on the other end. We also would generally contrive to stay in suites or apartments or other such rooms while traveling. In a setup like this, we found that we could set the tent up in the bedroom at the start of the night, and drag it out to the living room gently when we were ready to go to sleep ourselves without waking Hannah up. This would have been pretty much impossible with a travel crib.

Some other notes: the pump included to inflate the air mattress was acceptable, but a little chintzy. Using a proper bike pump with a ball-nozzle attachment was always a better option if available. We also learned that if packing the bed for a short car trip -- dinner with friends before returning to our sleeping quarters, for example -- it was helpful to deflate the mattress just enough to fold it in half before transporting the bed by car, for ease of setup on the other side.

We never used the sleeping bag included with the package. Also, the design doesn’t admit a fitted sheet or anything, so Hannah was sleeping on bare plastic, and would sometimes wake up with a sweaty head. If she’d ever had a messy issue of some sort in the Peapod -- badly blown diaper, say, or vomit -- it would have been hard to clean up. Nothing like that ever happened, though.

In all, I recommend the product pretty wholeheartedly. Enough so that I recommended it to my brother and sister-in-law, who bought a smaller-sized one for their son, and have inherited ours. (Probably our fault -- we called it Hannah’s “Baby Tent”, and when Hannah clearly no longer thought of herself as a baby, she didn’t want to use it any more. We travel with a kiddie Aerobed instead nowadays.)

You may have a hard time finding a retailer for it. Even, notably, Amazon. Why?

The Incident

If you do searches for peapods nowadays -- “peapod amazon” in a Google search, for example, or “peapod safety”, you’ll likely turn up something like this link. Or perhaps this Amazon discussion. Blockquoting from the former:

URGENT NEWS: 5 Month Old Infant Passes Away in PeaPod Travel Crib

Twiniversity Member Christine Moyers writes:
“On Dec. 23 my son Daniel died of “positional asphyxiation” — he suffocated — while sleeping in his PeaPod Travel Crib. Yesterday I spoke with Dr. Jessica French, the medical examiner who conducted my son Daniel’s autopsy, and while it will take a few more weeks for the results to be finalized, she can say now that Daniel suffocated, and did not die of SIDS.
The PeaPod Travel Crib has non-breathable lower siding.”
Christine goes on to say “I asked Dr. French if Daniel would still be alive if I had not put him in the PeaPod Crib — and she said yes, he would be. He was a healthy, thriving, beautiful baby boy.
This was an accident in an unsafe product. I know that intellectually. But our job as parents is to protect our babies. And for that I feel like a failure.
Please pass this information along to anyone and everyone you know. According to the company, “hundreds of thousands” of these tents have been sold. Given what we now know, NO BABY should sleep in a PeaPod Travel Crib.

Following on some other links (amazon review permalink, for example), you’ll find that the incident happened when visiting grandparents, and is the first time either child had been in the product. (Twins; the other child was unharmed.) By the way, when this story started pinging around last March, when Amazon received the review describing the death, etc., they pulled the product from their virtual shelves. It is not back as of this writing.

Anyway, this all sounds pretty serious. I am very sorry for Christine’s and her husband’s (and her whole family’s) loss. “Yikes,” I thought, “was I exposing Hannah to undue risk by using this product?” But another part of me was wondering “well, there was a certification process for this product. I don’t have the domain-specific knowledge to understand whether that process missed something. Or perhaps this incident was just a fluke?” I try not to expose our children (or ourselves) to easily avoidable risk -- I load my dishwasher silverware-pointed-down because kids have been hurt falling into open dishwashers, to provide some perspective -- but it’s impossible to legislate and design all the risk out of a product, an activity, or any other real-world interest.

So I went digging for more details on what actually happened in this case.  It took a little bit of digging, but here’s the CPSC incident report:

On Dec. 23, 2011 we found our five-month-old son dead in his PeaPod Plus Portable Children's Travel Bed (Model P201). He was rolled three-quarters of the way onto his belly, face down and with his weight pressing him into in the non-breathable plastic sidingof the travel crib. As per manufacturer's instructions, we had not zippered the travel bed shut, so his legs were hanging out of the "door" of the travel bed.

It continues from there, but hey. Wait a second. That’s not what the manufacturer’s instructions actually say to do! Leaving aside the issue that you’re giving your child access to the whole room they’re in should they wriggle out of the bed -- instead of access to just a small, enclosed, flat space -- the unzippered edge of the compartment is now a lip elevated 4-7 inches off the ground to get hung up on. Bad things could clearly happen if you step back and think it through. A kid could end up lying face-down on a plastic surface, needing to change positions, but with nothing to kick at or push off of but air. You could imagine the same thing happening with, say, an ordinary crib with some missing slats. (The breathability of the top of a mattress -- fitted sheet notwithstanding -- is hardly high.)

So here’s what the manufacturer’s instructions actually say (for this model; also the one that we owned):

Some PeaPod models have side zipper panels that can be rolled and  
secured in an open position using the hook and eye clasps provided.
To leave main zipper panel open, simply flip unzipped panel up and
over top of PeaPod Plus.

My emphasis. The instructions don’t tell you that you should keep the zippered panels open. Merely that it’s a possibility. In the context of a preceding sentence about possibilities, not something you must do. These are situational instructions, one would think; if the peapod is being used for supervised play, or for older children who can unzip the thing themselves anyway.

So really, this seems like a really sad and tragic user error. I don’t say this to pin some kind of badge of bad parenting on Christine and her husband -- I’m incredibly sympathetic and sorry for their loss -- just that in this one case, they made a mistake that had a risk of a bad outcome, and they got unlucky. There but for the grace of God and all that. The stresses and strains of caring for two newborns -- Hannah’s a single, I can scarcely imagine caring for twins -- can’t have helped either.

Could the product instruction sheet have been clearer? Yes, but the way in which the instructions were misread was very fluky. For the sake of obviousness, I’ll predict that future versions of the instructions will disclaim: “IF USING THIS PRODUCT FOR SLEEP WITH A CHILD OF LIMITED STRENGTH AND MOBILITY, OR IN ANY CASE ONE BELOW 18 MONTHS OF AGE, BE SURE TO SECURE THE SLEEPING AREA BY ZIPPERING THE MESH SHUT.”

Which is to say, I don’t think the Peapod’s danger as a product is at all commensurate with its web infamy. Again, keep in mind that no thing or activity is wholly risk-free, but there’s no evidence that this product has been injurious when used appropriately. Reading the first few links I’d found casually, you’d think that no sane, informed parent would go near the Peapod, and it took some digging to figure out what really happened. I hope this balances out the picture for you. Pay attention when you use it -- that really goes for just about everything -- but I recommend it.


I’m not an insider to this story at all, nor a domain expert. I’m just piecing stuff together that I’ve seen in internet posts, product reviews, product manuals, etc. I don’t have any financial interest in in KidCo, its parent company, or its success. Similarly for Amazon. I suppose Amazon is a major client of Google advertising products, so if controversy over the safety of the KidCo Peapod might affect Amazon’s advertising strategy around that particular product, this could affect my employer financially. But this all seems extremely attenuated.

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