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Time to ban babywalkers, say UAEU researchers after study uncovers shocking risk level

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A blanket ban on babywalkers should be considered in the UAE, according to researchers at United Arab Emirates University (UAEU) who claim they are “serious contributors” to child deaths and illness.

Through a study conducted at high schools in the university’s home city of Al Ain, a UAEU research team collated information from 696 Grade 12 students about accidents in their homes, and found that almost half the families who used a babywalker had seen at least one child being injured as a result.

Of the 646 injuries reported through the survey, 3 children died – one after being hit by a car while in a babywalker – and 11 were left with long-term disabilities. The findings, gathered through issuing a questionnaire, suggest that every child placed in a babywalker is at risk of injury, there is a 1-in-200 risk of serious disability, and a 1-in-1,000 chance of death.

The team – comprising Professor Michal Grivna, Amna Al-Hanaee, Ayesha Al-Dhahab, Fatima Al-Kaabi, and Shamma Al-Muhairi of the Institute of Public Health at UAEU’s College of Life Sciences, and Professor Peter Barss of the School of Population and Public Health at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver – has concluded that the UAE should look at following Canada’s lead and banning the sale, importation, and advertising of babywalkers. The country implemented this ban in 2004, making it the first nation in the world to do so.

In their research paper, the UAEU team said that while baby walkers are known to be “frequent causes of infant injuries”, there was “little research” on the issue in the Middle East and few population-based studies had been carried out. 

They sought to rectify this through a random sampling exercise that focused on four Al Ain high schools, with Grade 12 students being chosen to complete the 32-question survey as, according to the researchers, they often look after their siblings and are therefore “potentially more aware of home injury incidents than their working mothers”.

The findings revealed:

  • 87% of families had babywalkers, with 2,376 children being exposed to their use.
  • In addition to deaths and long-term disability, baby walkers led to 118 children receiving emergency-room treatment and 42 being hospitalized.
  • Although the nature of most injuries was unknown, 23 emergency-room visits were due to head injuries.
  • The most frequent cause of potential babywalker-related injuries is hitting a hard object, which accounted for almost half of the 2,759 incidents reported. Babywalkers flipping over or falling down stairs were also highlighted as key risks.
  • 300 babywalkers were found to have tumbled down stairs, and 32 to have fallen into swimming pools (although none of the pool incidents led to a death).
  • Cases of children needing hospital treatment after babywalker incidents more than doubled among families whose homes have two or more storeys.

The research team said that, even taking into account the fact students might struggle to remember all incidents, “severe and minor non-fatal babywalker injuries, as well as deaths, were frequent”. They also highlighted the fact that while only 34 babywalker-related deaths were recorded across the whole of the US between 1973 and 1998, Al Ain – “a city of less than 500,000 people” – had seen three alone.

“Although hitting a hard object and flipping over on a flat surface were the most frequent babywalker injury incidents in the UAE, the most dangerous incidents were falls down stairs and into pools,” said the paper. “Many families, especially citizens, live in multi-storey residences with inside and outside stairs. Other frequent hazards include more than one floor-level on the same storey, and play areas contiguous with parking and traffic.

“Home pools are another hazardous built environment, and in our study 31 incidents involved infants in babywalkers falling into pools. Exposure is high, with 12% of families having pools in this study.”

The study pointed out that other population-based studies in UAE cities had shown that fewer than 10% of household pools also had automatic self-closing and self-latching gates.

Outlining their findings, the UAEU research team said the babywalker-risk picture in Al Ain could be different in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, where there are more high-rise apartments and possibly less exposure to stairs, pools, and play areas next to parking zones; and that the amount of time children spend in babywalkers will differ from family to family. However, they added that the amount of information garnered from female Grade 12 students demonstrated that interviewing them is “a valid option to estimate the incidence of severe babywalker injuries”.

“High incidence and severity [of babywalker injuries] are due to the high prevalence of babywalkers, built environment hazards, and other factors,” said the team in their conclusions. “These are the result of a lack of product safety regulations to ban babywalkers.

“Clearly, in the short-term, active protection by health promotion is warranted to correct misconceptions about the safety and efficacy of babywalkers and the causality of incidents and injuries. Until countries have been cleared of babywalkers, families need frequent warnings to avoid and dispose of them. Concurrently, automatically closing and latching childproof barriers should be mandatory to separate play areas from stairs, pools, and vehicles, and even helmets might be considered if stairs are accessible in a home.

“However, since such measures require repeated intervention at household and sales levels, none are adequate substitutes for legislation blocking import and sales. Supervision by parents, older siblings, and others cannot be relied upon.”

The study says “stationary play centers” are seen as being “safer, more comprehensive, and more practical alternatives” to babywalkers, while mobile devices that are too large to fit through doors and come equipped with brakes are a “compromise solution” adopted in the US, on a voluntary basis, but do not provide full protection for children and have seen limited compliance.

But the team are adamant that in order to provide “long-lasting passive or automatic protection”, governments in the Middle East – and worldwide – should review the testimony and evidence that led to Canada banning babywalkers and prohibit their imports and sales. 

“In the UAE, if there are no manufacturers [of babywalkers], a ban could be focused mainly on importation and sales,” said the research paper. “While diligent enforcement is essential, this is required for all hazardous toys and should not excuse inaction. The babywalker issue deserves urgent addition to priority lists for advising governments on injury interventions.” 

Jun 21, 2017