In Response to the article “Baby Dies While Sleeping in Car Seat”: Fear, Smoke, & Mirrors

Over the past few days, the following article has appeared several times in my Facebook news feed: Baby Dies while Sleeping in Car Seat. Though the article is dated 2006, it seems to have recently gone viral. Whenever I see this kind of title (which is often),  go through the same process: 1) My heart rate rises. 2) I want to click. 3) I try to convince myself not to click. 4) I click.

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The article begins with a photo of the exact car seat I currently use. It’s a popular car seat. It tells a very sad story of a baby girl who died while napping. Her caretaker had detached the seat from its base and brought her inside so that she could continue to nap undisturbed. I, like most parents of this generation, am familiar with this practice; in fact I’ve probably done it twice this past month.  The article goes on to mention a study, based on nine infant deaths, where researchers found that car seats allow babies to sleep with their heads tilted forward which can then, in worst case scenarios, restrict their airways. The article concludes with this paragraph:

While it’s not safe to let babies sleep for a long time in the car seat out of the car, we want to make it clear: while in a car, it’s a different story. There is no question that infant car seats save lives and researchers say may reduce car accident injuries by as much as 90%.

There’s a kind of ambiguity here that troubles me—an ambiguity that seems to be present in so much of the safety advice I read. What does the author mean by “long periods of time”? Forty minutes? Two hours? And why does the article suggest that napping in the car seat “outside the car” is more dangerous than it is inside the car? Unless I’m missing something, if car seat napping is risky, it’s risky wherever it happens.

In fact, on long drives my baby’s hour-long car seat naps are probably more dangerous than his car-to-house naps. When my baby naps in the house, I check on him every few minutes. (Is he still breathing? What about now? Still breathing?) On long trips in the car though, when he’s quiet, I can entertain these fears but I can’t do much about them.

In any event, it seems that the author of the article and the experts he consulted are performing a risk-benefit analysis on my behalf, and they’ve concluded that the benefit of the car seat while driving outweighs the risk of my baby not breathing. While this is a sound conclusion (yes indeed, I will continue to use my car seat), I resent the smoke and mirrors. In my reading, the article tries to pretend that somehow napping in the car seat—which was so risky in the preceding paragraph—magically becomes safe in the car.

I complain about the smoke and mirrors now because I see it as a trend in parenting literature. Authors and experts prefer to offer hardline advice rather than simply offer me the data, or admit that they don’t know. Case in point: take this video on alcohol consumption during pregnancy, a typical example of the limited data that is typically shared with pregnant women.

March of Dimes is unequivocal in their advice that women should absolutely never consume any alcohol during pregnancy. Compare this advice to this more balanced assessment here: we know for sure that binge drinking leads to birth defects, but there is no conclusive evidence on how moderate drinking affects a fetus.

Personally, I’d like to be trusted to make my own decisions for my body and my children, to perform the risk benefit analysis myself, rather than being insulated from the data.

At the end of the day, there’s no avoiding this truth: babies are fragile and living has risks. I’d like to monitor my one-year-old’s breathing every moment of the day, but the fact is that sometimes I do need to sleep, sometimes I choose to drive somewhere several hours away, and sometimes, as my baby naps in his crib and I finally get a few moments to myself, I choose to believe that he’s all right. I’d like to systematically eliminate every possible risk from our lives, but I’m worried that for each risk I manage there are more sinister risks over which I have no control.

I often think about parents in earlier times when infant mortality was common. Did they listen for their baby’s breath many times in a day? Did they sometimes tiptoe to the cradle, waiting to see any sign of motion? I imagine they did, that the fear of losing something so precious haunted them in the same way it haunts me. But I wonder also if they were less obsessed by the details, the logistics, if they engaged in daily risk-benefit analysis or if instead they lived their lives with their babies on their hip or at their side and simply prayed for the best.

6 thoughts on “In Response to the article “Baby Dies While Sleeping in Car Seat”: Fear, Smoke, & Mirrors

  1. I have a 5 year old and a 7 month old and my father (who also happens to be their pediatrician) has told me when both kids have had a cold as an infant and been stuffy to let them sleep overnight in the car seat so they could be slightly reclined. After my concerned mother emailed me the article that you are talking about, I started paying closer attention to the baby’s position when she’s sleeping in the car seat after I bring her in from the car and I just don’t see how he head could slump forward if she tried.


    1. Thanks for commenting. The incident described in the article is so terrifying–and at the same time seems like it illustrates that sometimes babies stop breathing more than it points to a specific, imminent danger in car seat design.


  2. The version I read of the study’s findings said that sleeping in the car seat in the car is safe because it’s installed at the proper angle (demonstrated by some version of a level on the carseat base), but when you take the carrier part out of the car, it may no longer be at the right angle.

    Shortly noted near the end:

    I was pretty happy to find that, since I also do the “is she breathing? How about now?” checks many times during naps.


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