Babies are the stars of many different print advertisements for a wide range of consumer products. Why? Because they are so gosh darn cute. But they aren’t always depicted in the safest positions while they’re sleeping. Advertisers chock it up to the beauty of a shot, whatever best displays their product. A study published in the Journal Pediatrics found that magazines geared towards women aged 20 to 40 often portray infants in unsafe sleeping positions which could be detrimental to influencing new parents.
Guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) advise caretakers to put infants to sleep on their backs and to avoid loose bedding, soft sleeping surfaces and bed sharing in order to reduce the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), the leading cause of death in children between one month and one year of age. “It’s a subliminal message. If a mom sees that [unsafe ad], she may think it’s OK to sleep her baby in that particular position,” said Brandi Joyner, a SIDS researcher and health educator at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and lead author of the study. “That causes confusion as far as complacency in infant sleep practices.”
The study examined images from 28 popular magazines including Parenting, Pregnancy and Baby Talk. Each has an average female readership with millions of eyes on these advertisements not consistent with AAP safe sleep practices. Of the more than 400 pictures, infants were shown on their stomachs or sides 36 percent of the time. Even more troubling was that in 63 percent of the photographs, unsafe sleeping environments containing pillows, stuffed animals and blankets, or sharing a bed with an adult.
Pediatricians are in agreement that these are not the persuasive images new parents should be seeing, and that all the photographs are inconsistent with proper safety standards. “I think it is interesting and not surprising that the authors found inconsistencies in what is portrayed in the media and what is actually recommended,” Dr. Ari Brown, a pediatrician and author of the book Baby 411: Clear Answers & Smart Advice For Your Baby’s First Year Brown, who serves on the medical advisory board for Parents magazine, which was one of the magazines included in the study, said the board pays close attention to the magazine’s editorial content but not advertorial or graphical content. “If the media would be more aware of some of these [AAP] recommendations when they are claiming to educate their readers [...] we could be doing a real service to the public.”
While most new parents turn towards books as the ‘most important’ source of information on what to do when baby arrives, experts are in agreement that they do have the potential to influence parents. But there is no clear consensus about who should take responsibility for an advertisement featuring an infant in an unsafe sleeping position. “If [advertisers] are going to use babies that are sleeping, it’s very important that they need to know and be aware of infant safe sleep practices,” Joyner said. “I think everyone should be on one accord.” And even when magazines seek medical approval for articles, they may not apply the same standards to their other content.
“I recall the images of Jennifer Lopez’s nursery [from People magazine] for her newborn twins,” said Dr. Fern Hauck, a member of the AAP Task Force on SIDS and director of the International Family Medicine Clinic at the University of Virginia. “Fluffy comforters, bumper pads [...] totally wrong message. You can be sure that all those readers took away the message that this was the nursery to yearn for.”