There were just 20 minutes left in the party when it happened. My 10-year-old daughter Kelsea rushed up to me in tears.
"What's wrong?" I asked.
"I bumped heads with another girl on the moon bounce and now my nose really, really hurts," she cried. One look at her nose, and I knew this was no fleeting bump. There was a dime-sized divot in the bridge of her previously adorable nose, and she couldn't breathe through it.
Two hours and one cat scan later, the ER doctor confirmed my sinking suspicion. "Yep, it's broken," he said. By then Kelsea's nose had swollen so much that she looked like a 'Star Trek' character. "What's 'Star Trek'?" she asked.
That would have been funny, but right then, the pediatric ENT stepped into the room. "She's going to need surgery to repair her nose," he informed us.
By then, other mothers were sending me text messages asking whether Kelsea was okay. When I told them her nose was broken, many were shocked. "What a crazy, freak accident," one wrote. "I can't believe this happened on a moon bounce." But it wasn't a freak accident, and as a longtime consumer reporter, I should have seen it coming. Government safety officials and pediatric groups have been warning about the dangers of "inflatable amusements" for years.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission says 82,203 people were injured on inflatables between 2008 and 2013, more than 90 percent of those on moon bounces. (That number represents ER visits and doesn't include scrapes and bruises dealt with at home.) And the rate of injuries has been growing over time, perhaps because moon bounces, also called bounce houses, are more common than ever, with even backyard versions available. Two-thirds of the injuries are to legs and arms. Fifteen percent involve heads and faces.
A study published in the journal Pediatrics reported that in 2010, a child got hurt on a moon bounce every 46 minutes.
"It is very common for us to see children in our emergency department who have been injured on moon bounces . . . especially during the summer," said Katie Donnelly, an emergency room doctor at Children's National Medical Center. "The case that I remember most vividly was two small children playing in a poorly secured bounce house. A big gust of wind came up and sent the whole structure tumbling quite a way. Thankfully, everyone made it out with only minor bumps and abrasions, but it could have been much worse."
The authors of the Pediatrics study called bounce house injuries an "epidemic" and said the type and severity of children's injuries are similar to that suffered on recreational trampolines. That's significant, because in 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics came out with advice that children should not play on backyard trampolines at all. Ever. "Pediatricians need to actively discourage recreational trampoline use," the announcement said.
Few have suggested that children forgo the pleasures of the moon bounce altogether — I myself knew about the risks and let my daughter play on one — yet it seems like there should be national safety standards. There aren't. Moon bounce manufacturers adhere to some voluntary standards, and the user manuals that come with them contain warnings, but most parents never see those warnings. So it's up to us to be smart about this ourselves. Here are several safety suggestions from safety advocates and medical professionals:
• One kid at a time. This one's a real party killer, but studies show many of the worst injuries happen when multiple children play on a moon bounce at the same time. They get into collisions — like in my daughter's case — or fall on one another.
• All kids the same age/size. When kids do collide or fall on one another, the injuries are worse when they are of markedly different sizes. At our annual Fourth of July block party we now enforce separate "big kids" and "little kids" times on the moon bounce.
• No kids younger than 6. The Pediatrics study found that more than a third of children injured on bounce houses are younger than 6. The CPSC says kids under 6 should not use trampolines. Parents could use the same guideline for bounce houses.
• No touching. If multiple children are on a moon bounce at once, tell them to keep some distance from one another and to try not to touch one another.
• No stunts. They're called "bounce" houses, not "flip" or "somersault" houses, and bounce is all kids should do in them. "Flips and somersaults are the most common cause of spinal trauma," Donnelly said.
• Careful getting in and out. A significant number of moon bounce injuries happen as kids get on or off. So warn your kids about that and maybe give them a hand. It's also a good idea to put padding outside the moon bounce exit.
• Watch out for wind. We've all heard the dramatic reports of bounce houses picked up off the ground by wind. Proper anchoring can help, but if it's a really windy day, better to ditch the bounce house altogether.
• Safe surroundings. Whether you're setting up a moon bounce yourself or have hired a company to do so, make sure it's well away from walls, greenhouses, concrete surfaces, sharp objects or other areas of potential danger.
• Beware of deflation. There have also been multiple reports of children trapped by heavy plastic when moon bounces suddenly deflated, which is a suffocation risk. Generators powering inflatables should have plenty of gas, and electric ones should be plugged into GFI-type outlets, according to the CPSC. But most of all, parents should keep an eye on their kids and get them out fast if the contraption starts to collapse.
• Adult supervision. And finally, we parents should supervise to make sure all of the rules above are followed. At the party where my daughter was injured, at first we adults were vigilant about making sure there weren't too many kids on the moon bounce at once. But as time went by, we relaxed - too much, apparently.
My daughter came through her surgery fine. Her nose looks like the cute one I remember. However, because of scar tissue, it will get stuffed up more quickly for the rest of her life. Still, we're grateful it wasn't worse. The CPSC knows of a dozen deaths involving moon bounces between 2003 and 2013.
Leamy hosts the podcast "Easy Money" and is a 25-year consumer advocate for programs such as "Good Morning America" and "The Dr. Oz Show." Connect with her at leamy.com and ElisabethLeamy.