Special to The Washington Post
To create a safe nursery, what you leave out of your baby's room may be more important than what you include.
"Bare is best," said Ann Marie Buerkle, acting chairwoman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission. "That means no pillows, blankets, extra padding or other soft bedding. Nearly half of the infant crib deaths . . . reported to CPSC each year are suffocations caused by placing infants to sleep on top of pillows, thick quilts and/or overcrowding in the baby's sleeping space."
Getting the crib environment right is crucial because babies spend so much time sleeping. Let's start there and work our way outward with the latest recommendations for the rest of the room.
The crib: You should purchase a crib made after June 2011, when new safety standards became mandatory. This is no time for hand-me-downs. The new standard banned drop-sides and improved the slats, supports and hardware of cribs sold in America. These standards are all meant to prevent suffocation deaths.
The mattress: Gaps are the enemy. The mattress must fit snugly, leaving room for no more than two fingers between it and the crib. If possible, get a list of appropriate mattresses from the crib manufacturer. Also look for a crib mattress certified by the non-profit CertiPUR-US, which means it is made without harmful chemicals and has low emissions.
The bedding: Current guidelines recommend putting nothing in the crib other than a fitted sheet and your baby. And yet, popular store catalogues continue to show quilts hanging from crib rails and some still sell crib bumpers, even though the American Academy of Paediatrics advises parents not to use them. The AAP website says: "Because there is no evidence that bumper pads . . . prevent injury in young infants, and because there is the potential for suffocation, entrapment and strangulation, these products are not recommended."
Artwork: Here's where you can use that quilt: as a soft wall hanging. It's best not to hang hard-edge, glass-encased pictures over your baby's crib or changing table. Put them elsewhere. Mobiles, another common fixture in baby's rooms, should not contain small parts that could become choking hazards and should be hung out of the baby's reach.
Windows: The CPSC recommends installing window guards and/or window stops to prevent falls. Every year, children fall to their deaths through window screens, which are not strong enough to keep them in. Keep furniture away from windows to discourage climbing.
Blinds: The government estimates an American child used to be strangled in window blind cords every two weeks. That's why, by the end of this year, stores will only be stocking cordless blinds. Securing cords out of reach just isn't good enough. Cordless blinds cost as little as $3 apiece, a worthwhile investment for your nursery - and elsewhere in your house.
Cords: Speaking of cords, make sure cords from baby monitors, lamps and other electronics are at least three feet from your child's crib. It's best if products with cords are placed near wall outlets, so the cords can be tucked away where crawling and walking babies can't get at them either.
Furniture: Tip-overs are the big risk here. Consumer Reports says furniture makers only have to comply with a voluntary standard and don't even have to test to make sure their products won't tip over. Consumer advocates are pushing for a federal standard to ensure furniture is more stable. Meanwhile, it's crucial that you anchor top-heavy furniture in your child's room - and elsewhere in your house - to your walls. That includes any piece of furniture taller than 30 inches and also television sets. Heavy-lidded toy chests are another hazard. At the very least, children can crush their fingers under the lids, and at most, they can get trapped inside and suffocate. Choose an open-topped chest or take the lid off.
Carpet: Look for carpeting, rugs and pads that emit low levels of volatile organic compounds. VOCs can cause eye, nose and throat irritation and headaches in the short term and nervous system damage and cancer in the long term. Greenguard, which is part of testing organization UL, certifies products that have low emissions. You can also look for the Carpet and Rug Institute's "Green Label Plus."
Paint: Here again, you don't want your baby exposed to any more chemicals than absolutely necessary. All of the major paint brands offer low-VOC formulas. Greenguard certifies low-emission paints as does another organization called GreenSeal. It also helps to complete any paint jobs well before you bring your baby home, and leave windows open for ventilation.
Smoke detectors: The National Fire Protection Association recommends installing one smoke detector inside every sleeping room in your home - including your baby's nursery. You should also install a detector outside each sleeping area, such as in the hallway. Better yet, choose wireless interconnected smoke alarms. When one goes off, they all do. That way, if there's a fire in, say, your basement, the detectors in your bedrooms will sound, giving you an earlier warning.
Those are all of the current nursery safety recommendations, but as we learn more, standards change. To get updated information about product safety, you can sign up to receive CPSC emails about recalled infant and child products.
"Your baby's sleep environment should be the safest place in your home," Buerkle said. "While many new parents are focused on making their nursery beautiful, all parents - new and experienced - should think about safety first."
Elisabeth Leamy hosts the podcast "Easy Money." She is a 13-time Emmy winner and a 25-year consumer advocate for programs such as "Good Morning America." Connect with her at leamy.com. Follow @ElisabethLeamy.