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New York woman advocates for safer cribs after her son's death

By Chris Reinolds Kozelle, CNN
Tyler Witte was 10 months old when he died in his crib 13 years ago. The tragedy made his mother an activist.
Tyler Witte was 10 months old when he died in his crib 13 years ago. The tragedy made his mother an activist.
  • Michele Witte's 10-month-old son suffocated in a drop-side crib in 1997
  • The baby's neck became stuck between side rail, headboard when screw loosened
  • Witte has been working to get drop-side cribs banned
  • Consumer Product Safety Commission approved standards that would ban drop-side cribs

(CNN) -- Michele Witte woke up about 1 a.m. on December 12, 1997, and went to change her son's diaper. Then she rocked him and laid her 10-month-old back in his crib. Later that morning, she went into his bedroom to wake him and found his lifeless body. She immediately fell to her knees screaming.

Witte's son, Tyler, had gotten his neck stuck in a gap between the side rail and headboard created when a single screw had become loose. She called 911, but her baby boy was cold, and she knew in her heart he was already dead. As her 2-year-old daughter came bounding into the bedroom, she grabbed her so she wouldn't see her brother.

Witte, an English teacher in Bellmore, New York, said the coroner ruled the death an accident, but she and her family notified the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Thirteen years later, the commission voted Wednesday in favor of new proposed mandatory standards for cribs. The new rules, likely to go into effect next year after a final vote by the federal commission, would render many cribs in the country as not up to code, regardless of whether the crib style and model was ever considered unsafe, and essentially would ban the manufacture and sale of drop-side cribs.

In addition to eliminating drop-side cribs, the new rules will mandate better mattress support, sturdier hardware and better quality wood for crib construction. Between November 2007 and April of this year, there were 36 deaths associated with crib structural problems, according to Commission Chairwoman Inez Tenenbaum.

Hazards in cribs include faulty hardware, dangerous gaps created from mattress support failures, and poor wood quality with crib slats that can be broken easily. The new standards aim to eliminate gaps where babies could become entrapped and suffocate, and to prevent babies from falling out of the crib.

After Tyler's death, Witte, now 36, began to believe it was an isolated incident after a series of frustrating conversations and research. But in 2004, Witte heard about another couple whose baby had died in a drop-side crib just miles from her Bellmore home. She was outraged that the accidents continued to happen and ramped up her advocacy efforts.

"The coroner said it would take 15 seconds for him to asphyxiate," she said, her voice quivering with the memory of Tyler's death. "My bedroom was close. I had the baby monitor on, but it's the silent killer. If you can't breathe, you can't scream out."

While Witte said she is happy about the latest developments, she is still worried about parents who have drop-side cribs.

Video: Plan would ban most cribs in U.S.

Since the accidents first started getting attention years ago, Witte said she's heard of some parents who let their babies sleep in beds with them, which the American Academy of Pediatrics discourages. Others have used duct tape or lodged their cribs against a wall.

"What does that mean for cribs already out there?" she said. "We need to have new safe cribs for people who can't afford it."

Witte's oldest daughter, now 14, slept in the oak crib with steel hardware that kiled her baby brother. Since then, Witte has had two more children, a girl, now 6, and a boy, 1. Both have slept in a new stationary crib with no movable parts. In fact Witte said the current crib will only come apart now with a sledgehammer.

"The problem is of hardware. Whenever you have something you are moving, the hardware is bound to fail," she said.

When Witte puts her son down to sleep tonight, she will face the same stress she has dealt with for years.

"The safest places for a baby is safe, securely built, stationary crib," she said, adding that she has a video monitor in her son's room and gets up "about 14 times a night checking on him."

"I'm happy for the day when he's out and in the bed, and we're done with cribs."