You might see bunk beds as a way to free up some floor space and fit an expanding family into your living area. The kids, on the other hand, are probably giddy with the idea of bedroom furniture that looks like playground equipment. That, however, can make parents more than a little nervous — after all, for a small child, that top bunk is a long way up.
That’s why both adults and kids should know how to use bunk (or loft) beds safely and know that bunk bed safety means more than just not falling off the top bunk.
Who’s at Risk and for What Types of Injuries?
The good news is that bunk-bed-related fatalities are increasingly rare, especially since the mid-1990s when awareness of suffocation dangers increased.
However, a 2008 study by the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital’s Research Institute found that between 1990 and 2005 an average of 36,000 kids a year were treated at emergency rooms in the United States for bunk-bed-related injuries.
Of the injuries reported in the study:
- About three-fourths were due to falls while sleeping or playing, with the majority of them affecting the child’s head or neck. (A child’s higher center of gravity causes them to fall head-first more often.)
- Almost 70% of kids’ fractures affected the upper body, with kids between 6 and 13 facing a higher risk of broken arms and other upper-body bones.
- About half of all injuries occurred to children under 6.
- Falling from the top is, however, not the only way kids can get hurt on a bunk bed.
Other causes of even more serious bunk-bed injuries include:
- Striking raised upper corner posts.
- Becoming trapped between the upper bed and the wall.
- The upper bed collapsing on a sleeper below.
- Falling and catching a limb on the ladder rungs.
- Strangulation either between rails, or on cords, scarves, or other items hanging from the top bunk.
- Suffocation between the mattress and the wall or mattress box.
How to Reduce the Risk of Bunk Bed Accidents
You’ve got the bunk bed and your kids are excited about it. What can you do to make it safer for them and give yourself some peace of mind?
Pick the Right Spot
- Put the bed in a corner. That will provide at least two walls for support and to prevent falls.
- Don’t put the bed near a ceiling fan. This also goes for hanging light fixtures.
- Set up a night light near the ladder. It will make climbing down and up in the dark much safer.
- Clear the floor area. Make sure the floor around the bed is always free of sharp or hard objects like toys, chests, or furniture. That way, if there is a fall, there are fewer dangerous things to strike.
Check the Equipment
- Follow the assembly instructions carefully. Don’t leave parts out and don’t use substitute or “jury-rigged” replacement parts.
- Check the structure for any cracks, loose screws, or weak points. This applies to both wooden and metal bed supports. Test the bed’s sturdiness, watching for wobble or loose joints. On metal frames, especially imported tubular metal bunk beds., periodically check all the welds and look for any thin cracks in the paint near the joints. Never let kids sleep in a bed —new or used — that is broken or damaged. That goes for the lower bunk as well as the upper one.
- Make sure the upper bed’s foundation is strong. Check the mattress support slats and use all the crossties correctly.
- Make sure the ladder isn’t loose or broken. It should be firmly secured to the bed frame.
- Put guardrails on both sides the top bunk. Even if one side is against the wall, a guardrail can prevent a child from sliding down between the beds and the wall. Here’s the tricky part: You want to make sure the rails are at least 5 inches above the mattress (or children could tumble over them in their sleep), but also that the rails and any part of the bed do not have gaps more than 3.5 by 6 inches (so a child cannot get his or her head through the gap).
- In fact, check the entire bed for “head spaces.” Look around the structure, the rails, the headboard and footboards, even between the ladder and the bed for any places where your child’s head might accidentally get stuck, putting him or her at risk of strangulation.
- Use the correct size mattresses. A mattress that’s too small leaves gaps on the sides or between the mattress and headboard or footboard, leaving the potential for suffocation.
Educate the Children
- Talk to your kids about bunk bed safety. Teach them the importance of safe bunk bed use the same way you would educate them about any potentially dangerous item in your home.
- Children under 6 should not be sleeping in the top bunk. Also, you know your child and his or her sleeping habits — if he or she is a restless sleeper who rolls around a lot at night or is a sleepwalker, the upper bunk is not a good fit.
- Show them how to use the ladder. Insist they use it, rather than scrambling up the sides or ends or using a chair or other furniture to climb to the top.
- It’s not a playground toy. To your kids, the bunk bed may look like an awesome jungle gym in their bedroom, but stress to them that it is not to be played on.
- Don’t let more than one child at a time sleep in the upper bed. Check the manufacturer’s weight limits for the upper bunk.
- Never hang or tie scarves, ropes (including jump ropes), belts, or cords from the top bunk. Children could get their heads or limbs caught in them. Remember that concussions and broken bones from falls are the most common injuries, but suffocation and strangulation are among the deadliest safety threats around bunk beds.
The Rules Aren’t Just for Small Kids
Young adults between 18- to 21-years old are twice as likely to suffer bunk-bed injuries than younger teenagers. That’s because:
- They’re using bunk beds more often at college or in the military
- Their heavier weight sometimes puts more strain on bed structures
- They may horse around more often in and near the beds
- They may use alcohol more frequently and be more likely to “sleep while drunk” in the top bunk.
- If your son or daughter is heading off to college or the military, remind them of the bunk bed safety guidelines as well.
You shouldn’t lie awake at night worrying about your kids’ bunk bed. You should, however, take steps to make sure the bed’s structure is secure and that everyone using it knows the safety rules. That way you all get a good night’s sleep!
U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission – Office of Compliance Requirements for Bunk Beds [PDF]