The death of a child at any age is one of the most unimaginable and devastating tragedies. Generally speaking, a child's life is always fragile, but generally none more than in the newborn phase. Many new parents will be educated about Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS, by a healthcare provider while pregnant or shortly after delivery. SIDS is generally thought to occur while a child is sleeping and therefore is associated with a crib or bed, but can SIDS occur in a car seat?
The Mayo Clinic defined SIDS as unexplained death of a seemingly healthy baby less than a year old, usually during sleep. The exact cause is unknown but according to the same site, it appears that SIDS might have something to do with abnormalities in the part of the infant's brain that controls breathing. It seems these babies that die from SIDS can't rouse themselves from sleep if their breathing becomes an issue.
However, according to the Safe to Sleep website, SIDS is not the cause of every sudden infant death. Only those deaths that are unexplained with no clear cause after investigation are technically considered SIDS. Sadly thousands of infants die every year in the United States, and the causes of their deaths are in fact accidental, but many are explained by strangulation, suffocation, and entrapment. The site noted that in both instances are things that parents can do to lower the risk.
Parents identified SIDS safety tips as not putting blankets or toys in the crib, making sure the mattress is firm and the sheet is tight-fitted, not over-dressing your baby, and always putting your baby to sleep on their back. If your baby is asleep in their car seat, they aren't technically flat on their back. Same with infant swings.
I remember a few years ago calling my pediatrician about my colicky 3-month-old daughter begging for a solution to our sleep woes. She asked me what, if anything, had I found effective for inducing sleep with my newborn. I told her our only respite from non-stop screaming was our baby swing. Our variable speed, music-playing, wonderful baby swing. I remember almost crying on the phone telling her, "It is literally the only thing that gets her to sleep. And when I try to move her, she screams. What do I do?"
My daughter's pediatrician was gentle, but firm. She advised me that if I needed to drive around a bit to get my daughter to sleep or use the swing initially I could. "You're in survival mode right now," she said. "Whatever you can do to get her to sleep, do it." But she followed up with some very stern advice and told me it was not OK for my daughter to be asleep in a swing or car seat for long periods of time. Although she didn't specify how many minutes or hours was acceptable, she indicated that both should be limited to quick cat naps and nothing more because of the concerns about breathing.
According to Baby Your Baby, positional asphyxia, or suffocation, happens when a person can't get enough air because of how their body is positioned. It can happen to infants in several ways like their nose becomes blocked by pillows, their body wedged between crib bumpers, couch cushions or even blankets. Or they may be sleeping in a position where their chest isn't able to fully expand.
According to Medical Daily, the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and Children's National Medical Center are calling attention to the hazards of improperly using infant sitting and carrying gear. The website noted that rates of SIDS has gone down in recent years, but the rates of death caused by suffocation and entrapment have increased. They are the most common causes of death in babies one to 12 months old. What is considered improper use of infant carriers? According to the site, researchers say parents are improperly using carrying devices such as car seats, bouncers, and strollers if they're consistently using them as sleeping equipment.
According to the same article, researchers noted that leaving a child unsupervised in a car seat, swing, or stroller is a big problem. Maybe you're not technically leaving your baby in a room by themselves in a carrier, but turning your back for several moments can mean you're not fully watching your baby in one of these devices. Maybe you put your baby in a carrier or car seat to take a shower, or cook dinner, or to take a quick nap while they sleep in the carrier. All are situations where the child is technically unsupervised and possibly at risk for injury or worse. The bottom line: carriers and swings are not meant for sleep.
Researchers from the CPSC looked at 47 deaths related to infant sitting and carrying devices that were reported between April 2004 and December 2008. Two-thirds were linked to car seats and roughly half were caused by strap strangulation.
But car seats are still essential for car travel with kids. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) suggested that parents keep kids in rear-facing car seats until they're two years old, or until they reach the maximum height and weight recommendations on the car seat. But it needs to be stressed that car seats should be travel safety only.
"Car seats and car beds can result in mild respiratory compromise in about 20 percent of newborns," lead researcher T. Bernard Kinane, M.D., the chief of pulmonary pediatrics at Massachusetts General Hospital, in Boston told CNN, "These safety devices should only be used for protection during travel and not as a replacement for a crib."
To make sure you're doing absolutely everything you can to reduce the risk SIDS, it's worth examining possible dangers. Again, SIDS is mostly unpreventable and unpredictable, with no known symptoms, but there are things you can do to prevent serious injury or death in your newborn from strangulation, suffocation, and entrapment. Part of that means examining how your baby sleeps and making adjustments if necessary - that way you and your baby can sleep comfortably and securely knowing that everyone is as safe as possible.