My first child never slept, so I remember clearly the first day he conked out in his car seat (yes, this child would usually not even fall asleep in a car). We carefully and quietly carried him upstairs to our apartment while he snoozed. And then we set the car seat down on our living room floor and let him sleep some more.
“Wow,” we whispered, marveling at how peaceful and cozy he looked, “maybe he should always nap in the car seat.”
A totally normal thought. I mean, everywhere I looked I saw babies sleeping in their car seats, and not just in the car. There was a reason that infant car seats were portable, right? It was so that you could schelp your sleeping baby around after they zonked out in the car.
Heck, I knew a family whose babies slept all night in their car seat, because that was the only way the kid would sleep at all.
Well, it turns out we were all totally wrong, and you should never let your kid sleep in their car seat outside of the car.
What? You’re kidding me, right?
Nope, I’m completely serious. It turns out that – while sleeping in a properly installed car seat in a car is generally fine – once that seat is out of the car and not properly positioned, your baby is at risk of asphyxiation and death.
In 2015, the Academy of American Pediatrics (AAP) released a study warning parents of this danger. The study reviewed deaths that occurred between 2004 and 2008 involving carrying devices like car seats, bouncers, swings, strollers, and slings. There were 47 deaths related to infants sleeping in these devices. Of the 47, a whopping 31 happened in car seats (5 deaths occurred in slings, 4 in swings, 4 in bouncers, and 3 in strollers).
In all the car seat deaths except one, the cause was asphyxiation. 52% of the time the asphyxiation was caused by strangulation from straps; the rest of time it was caused by incorrect positioning.
This is scary stuff – and if you are like me, you probably had no clue, and let your baby sleep in their car seat on many occasions.
“[C]ontrary to popular belief, the restraints and design of infant sitting or carrying devices are not intended for unsupervised sleeping,” the AAP explained in a press release about the study.
Who the heck knew, right?
Again, this is not to say that sleeping in a car seat in the car is a problem, but that once you move that car seat out of the car, you are looking at a potential problem. As the AAP explains: “It is important to note that an infant in a properly positioned car seat, in a car, with properly attached straps is at little risk from a suffocation injury.”
Now, you might think, Well, as scary as that is, the risk is small, and if my baby falls asleep in their seat, I’m sure as hell not waking them up when we’re done driving!
I get that, but with things like this, it really is better to err on the side of caution. I recently came across the story of a mom whose lost her baby this way, and let me tell you, once you hear her story, you will never again let your baby nap in their car seat outside of the car.
Lisa Smith’s daughter was 17 months old when her daughter, Mia, passed away after napping in her car seat at daycare. (Note that car seat naps aren’t safe for babies OR toddlers.)
“I got a call while I was at work,” Smith told WFMY News 2. “Worst call I’ve ever had in my life. ‘Drop everything. Mia didn’t wake up from her nap.’”
The mom said that she and her husband were aware of the rule about not letting your baby nap in their car seat outside the car, but tragically, her daycare provider was not. Mia’s cause of death was “positional asphyxia” as result of sleeping in the car seat.
Absolutely devastating. Since her daughter’s death three years ago, Smith has become a real advocate for educating families about this danger, and I think we all need to heed her warning.
So let’s start with this: Never let your baby or toddler sleep in their car seat outside the car. Make sure everyone who cares for your child knows this too. Also, make sure all your friends are aware. They might roll their eyes at you, but who cares? You could be saving their baby’s life.
In addition, keep in mind it is always best to let your baby sleep on their back on a firm, clear surface. That said, if you are going to let your baby sleep anywhere else, keep these safety tips in mind (as adapted from the AAP’s guidelines):
– Never let a child sleep unattended.
– Don’t leave your child in a car seat with the straps unbuckled or only partially bucked.
– If your car seat is outside the car, never place it on a soft/unstable surface.
– Bouncers, strollers, and swings are also not meant for sleeping because babies may be put in positions that restrict their airways. The straps on these devices do not always prevent this.
– Make sure your baby can’t smush their head or face into soft bedding or padding in any of these devices, and don’t let them slump forward.
– If you are using a baby carrier or sling, always make sure your baby’s face is uncovered (“visible and kissable”) at all times.
– Never place more than one baby in a swing or other device meant for one baby.
Take these guidelines to heart. Follow them carefully. Spread the word. And remember that it is always, always better to be safe than sorry.