Danger of Car-Seat Sleeping

The tragic story of an 11-week-old boy who suffocated after sleeping in a car seat for two hours has swept the nation, as Shepard Dodd’s parents prepare to take legal action against the Oklahoma City daycare center where it happened.

This may or may not be the first incident like this that you’ve heard about, but the sad fact is sleep-related deaths are the number one cause of death in children less than 1 year old. And as a parent, you’re probably wondering how something like this can happen and whether your child is at risk.

For one, remember the rules of safe sleep: Babies should always be put to sleep flat on their backs.

Why? On their tummies, babies are at an increased risk of suffocation – especially newborns under the age of 3 months, who can’t yet roll from tummy to back and vice versa. And there’s a similar risk in sleeping in an upright position, since a baby’s head could flop forward and he doesn’t yet have the neck control or strength to bring his head back up, which blocks the airway, says Dr. Ben Hoffman, member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on Injury, Violence and Poison Prevention.

Of course, if your baby is resting upright (like in a bouncer or car seat) and you notice the head has flopped forward, it’s easy to correct. The danger arises if you’ve left baby unattended in an upright position for a nap while you make lunch or pay bills, for example. So remember, the safest way for baby to sleep is on his back in a crib on a firm mattress, with no blankets, pillows, bumpers or plush toys.

That said, your infant will likely fall asleep sitting up at some point, whether it’s on a long car ride or when he’s being rocked by a swing – but don’t freak out just yet. Here’s what you need to know about sleep and car seats to keep your child safe.

How long is too long to sleep in a car seat?

Car seats, strollers, swings and bouncers are most dangerous if baby sleeps in them for an extended period of time. There’s no specific recommendation for how long is too long for a baby to sleep upright because it depends on the angle of the device and baby’s developmental stage. But according to Hoffman, two hours was “a long time” for Shepard to be left sleeping in a car seat.

What if driving, bouncers and swings help baby fall asleep?

Back-sleeping on a flat surface free of loose bedding and toys is the safest sleeping practice. But a quick drive around the block to calm down your car-loving little one isn’t cause for concern, as long as you keep an eye her. And the same goes for a brief nap in a bouncer or swing.

Just make sure you’re using the device exactly as the manufacturer recommends and pay extra attention to straps, harnesses and webbing. You’ll also want to check on baby often (don’t leave baby in a swing and go take a nap or shower, for example). And never put seats on a surface because there’s a risk of falling.

What about long car rides?

If you’re going on a road trip with your little one, you should pull over every hour or two and take baby out of the car seat. You should also do your best to keep an eye on baby while still driving safely, which is why Hoffman recommends that road trips with an infant have two or more adults whenever possible.

At what age is baby no longer at risk?

Babies are most at risk when they can’t sit up by themselves, and babies usually hit this milestone around 6 months. That said, you shouldn’t stop being vigilant whether you have a 2 month-old or a 2 year-old, Hoffman says. Safety concerns change as the child gets older, but they’re still there.

For example, older children are more squirmy and therefore more likely to wiggle themselves into a position where the straps on a carrier device could block their airway. To prevent this, always fully fasten the straps according to the manufacturer’s instructions when placing your child in a carrier. Don’t know if you’re doing it right? Find a certified child passenger safety technician who can help.

And just like with infants, never leave older babies and toddlers unsupervised whether they’re sleeping or not.

More Safe Sleep Tips

Safe Sleeping Tips For Babies

What’s the best way to inform caregivers?

There’s an increasing awareness surrounding the risks related babies sleeping upright, Hoffman says, but it’s always best to have a discussion with your caregiver. Be sure to address safe sleep practices before leaving your child with anyone, and if you’re opting for a daycare facility, make sure you know its policies and how much supervision your child will have beforehand.

Bottom line: Car seats save lives, and bouncers can be a life-saver for you when you need to keep baby calm and occupied for a few minutes. The takeaway from this sad story is 1) learn how to properly strap baby in; 2) always keep an eye on your baby when she is in one of these devices; and 3) always follow safe sleep practices with your baby. You are your baby’s first line of defense!

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