Are Sleeping Babies Safe In Car Seats? New Research Calls Standard Practices Into Question

Consumer Reports has been receiving several inquiries from parents who wonder whether it is safe for their babies to sleep in car seats.

The parents' concern for their babies' safety was brought about by recent recalls of inclined sleepers and reports that link inclined sleep devices with 54 infant deaths. Investigators found the angled position of a baby in a sleeper can cause the infant's head to tilt forward and compress the airway, thereby increasing the risk of suffocation.

According to Emily A. Thomas, Ph.D., an automotive safety engineer at CR's Auto Test Center specializing in pediatric injury biomechanics and a certified child passenger safety technician, parents can let their baby sleep "for short stretches in a car seat, as long as it's used properly."

Thomas reminded the public that car seats are crucial in keeping children safe when they travel in vehicles. She points out that the angle of rear-facing car seats, used for infants, has been tested extensively and is needed to protect a baby's head and spine in a collision.

Thomas agrees that the risks of having infants sleep on an incline are real and serious but she also believes "the protection a well-designed and properly installed car seat offers during a crash," vastly outweighs those risks.

Thomas also reminds parents that car seats, including the type you can remove from a vehicle and lock into a stroller, are meant to be used only while you are with your baby and observing him or her. Car seats are not designed for extended naps or overnight sleep.

Lastly, properly used infant car seats have been designed to include a five-point harness system which is key to maintaining proper and safe positioning of the baby. The harness keeps the baby's head up while sleeping and prevents the infant from slumping down, chin to chest, blocking the baby's airflow. Rachel Rabkin Peachman "Is It Okay for Babies to Sleep in Car Seats?" consumerreports.org (Oct. 07, 2019).

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In 2017 in the United States, 794 children ages 12 and under died as occupants in motor vehicle crashes. Of this total, 37 percent were not restrained. Approximately 116,000 children were also injured in the same year.

Studies show child safety seats reduce fatal injury by 71 percent for infants and 54 percent for toddlers ages one to four and 45 percent for children ages four to eight.

Consumer Reports assures the public that car seats are safe as long as they are used properly.

Following are some tips on how to keep infants and young children safe using car seats:

  • Install the seat correctly according to the manufacturer's instructions which include age and weight requirements.
  • Use only an approved positioner provided by your car seat manufacturer and remember that positioners are meant to be used only for infants up to a particular weight and height.
  • Buckle up the five-point harness system, making sure that it has a snug fit on the baby.
  • Check on the baby regularly even if he or she is appropriately positioned in the car seat.
  • Use car seats designed to be used with a stroller base only with its approved stroller.
  • Never leave the child in the car seat outside the car or stroller.
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