All together now… “That’s unrealistic!”
If this was a TV news story, I’d be starting off with a montage of moms rolling their eyes and replying “that’s unrealistic” when I tell them that “the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Green Science Policy Institute and many others are urging parents NOT to use car seats as stroller seats or let a child sleep in a car seat outside of the car.”
Frankly “that’s unrealistic” was also my response to Arlene Blum of the Green Science Policy Institute during a recent interview for these two stories about flame retardant chemicals in car seats.
I literally laughed out loud when she followed up “don’t use car seats as stroller seats” with “and don’t let your kids eat in their car seats.”
Arlene’s primary concern is the chemical flame retardants in car seats (some known to cause cancer) that break down into dust. Kids inhale and ingest that dust and, as a result, studies show that kids have the highest levels of those chemicals in their blood.
Toxic Safety: Car Seat Flame Retardants
I’ve blogged extensively about the “Concerning Chemicals in Car Seats” and I was shocked to discover they’ve even been found in the high-end, supposedly-green car seats. However, reducing prolonged exposure to chemicals that may cause cancer, neurological disorders and reproductive issues is not the primary reason most are urging parents not to use car seats outside of the car.
SIDS & Sleep-Related Deaths in Car Seats
Sleep-related deaths are the most common cause of death for infants under 12 months. In a recent study published in the Journal of Pediatrics, researchers found two-thirds of the deaths they analyzed involved car seats.
Now, I get it. That could never happen to you, right? When my producer Jen went out to get MOS (man on the street) interviews with moms at the mall, each one responded with statements like, “Well, I check my baby constantly to make sure he’s breathing.”
Wake up call: The study found babies died of asphyxia (positional or strangulation) in as little as four minutes after their caregivers last saw them alive.
Infants and children 2 years of age and younger should be properly restrained and not be left unsupervised in sitting and carrying devices. Car seats should not be used as sleeping areas outside of the vehicle, and children should never be in a car seat with unbuckled or partially buckled straps.
The study’s author, Dr. Erich Batra, says they found that car seats are generally safe when babies are securely strapped in them in the car. However, problems arise when parents remove the car seat from the car and loosen or remove the straps.
“You should not use a car seat outside of the car, and an infant should never be in a car seat with partially buckled straps,” Batra told CBS News.
Batra’s study follows several others with similar findings. This study out of New Zealand also concluded, “Young infants should not be left unattended to sleep in standard car safety seats.”
Now, to be clear, it is not necessary to prevent your baby from falling asleep in the car while they are securely strapped into their car seats. The safest place for a child in a moving vehicle is securely strapped into a rear-facing car seat in the center position of the back seat.
Though according to Stephanie Tombrello of SafetyBeltSafe U.S.A. 90% of safety seats are used incorrectly and ” loose harnesses are a major issue overall in safety seats.” She points out that parents often “don’t have the harness snug enough, don’t have the retainer clip/chest clip at armpit level, or don’t correct many other errors, often because they refuse to read the instructions.”
When it comes to positional asphyxiation, the issues primarily arise when the car seat straps are loosened and/or the car seat is removed from the car. Babies can be (are being) 1) strangled by lose straps, 2) slumped into a position that restricts their airways, or 3) the car seat falls off a high surface or tips over on the ground or in the crib, suffocating or injuring the baby.
Bottom line, “back is best” and outside of the car they should be on a flat, firm surface. The American Academy of Pediatrics changed their recommendation back in 1992, urging parents to put babies to sleep flat on their backs.
According to the CDC’s National Infant Sleep Position Study, the dramatic decrease in the number of SIDS-related deaths since the ’90s directly correlates with the dramatic increase of parents placing babies to sleep flat on their backs.
But while SIDS deaths have declined, sleep-related deaths from other causes, including suffocation, entrapment and asphyxia, have increased.
Keep in mind, the sleeping-in-car-seat phenomena is fairly new. Our parents didn’t let us sleep in car seats (largely because we didn’t have them). In Europe, most parents still use lie-flat stroller seats or bassinet strollers and think we’re strange (or lazy) for refusing to remove our kids from car seats.
Don’t Wake a Sleeping Baby
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Millions of kids sleep in car seats every day.
The thought of taking them out of their car seats and risk waking them can be unconscionable to exhausted new parents deep in the throes of the “witching hour.”
Initially, I had the same thought. Then I imagined my sweet baby C never waking up from that nap.
Fifteen-month old Devon was taking a nap in her car seat, where a babysitter left her to sleep. Police say paramedics tried for more than an hour to revive her. She never woke up.
According to Devon’s parents, her babysitter left the straps on her car seat partially unbuckled while the baby slept. Devon was apparently strangled by the straps.
By the time 11-week old Shepard died, authorities say his childcare providers should have known better. Just two weeks before he was found dead in his car seat by a day care teacher, the Oklahoma Department of Human Services cited Shepard’s in-home day care for allowing infants to sleep in car seats in spite of regulations that prohibit it due to the risk of SIDS.
However, authorities say Shepard was put to sleep in an unbuckled car seat and placed alone in a room anyway. While the medical examiner ruled the death “unexplained”, authorities believe Shepard died of ‘positional asphyxiation,’ likely slumped into a position in the unbuckled car seat that compromised his breathing.
The day care reportedly lost its license as a result of Shepard’s death and Shepard’s family is now lobbying for state laws to hold day care teachers like theirs accountable.
Cancer-Causing Chemicals in Car Seats
However, risk of asphyxiation is just one of the reasons a growing number of experts are urging parents to leave the car seat in the car.
Cancer and other long-term health concerns are the primary reasons environmental scientists are urging parents to reduce the amount of time kids spend in car seats.
However, scientists from around the world believe that increased exposure to low doses of various chemicals are increasing the risk of cancer.
A recent study by the Ecology Center found nearly 75 percent of car seats tested contained concerning chemical flame retardants that may “harm the nervous system, cause cancer and/or disrupt the hormone (endocrine) system.”
This month the Consumer Product Safety Commission held a hearing to consider removing a certain class of flame retardants from several categories of consumer goods, including children’s products and household furniture.
However, for now, car seats must comply with the federal motor vehicle flammability standard FMVSS 302, so most (if not all) still contain flame retardants.
Environmental scientists argue that flame retardants in car seats provide little safety benefit because once the fire reaches the cab of the car, foam underneath the child is unlikely to protect him from a car fire fueled by combustible materials.
As noted in many of my previous news reports and NewsMom posts, the chemical industry asserts that flame retardants are safe and that they ultimately save lives.
The public should know TDCPP (and other flame retardants) slows the spread of fire, and with fire, every second counts. TDCPP and other flame retardants have been reviewed by regulators and found to be safe at the levels people are typically exposed to them.
NOTE: TDCPP is a flame retardant that was banned from children’s clothing in the 70’s but is still widely found in car seats and other products. It is listed as a carcinogen, “known to cause cancer” by the state of California.
Regardless, for now you can not avoid chemical flame retardants in car seats, but you can reduce the amount of time your kids spend in them.
The recommendations from regulators and/or environmental scientists:
- Don’t use a car seat as a stroller seat
- Don’t let your child sleep in the car seat outside of the car
- Don’t let your child eat in the car seat (yeah, right)
- Wash your child’s hands when she gets out of the car
- Wash your car seat fabric often
(Note: Some manufactures advise NOT to wash the fabric. Check with them to find out why.)
As a consumer-investigative reporter, I am terrified by what I learn on a regular basis and I have to be careful not to become overly paranoid. Instead, I try to focus on the little things we can do to help “reduce risk.”
Most, including the Mayo Clinic, suggest using a lie-flat stroller seat or bassinet attachment in a stroller for babies under 6 months. Pretty much every major manufacturer has a bassinet attachment for their stroller and they range from under $100 to several hundred dollars.
For those that simply can’t afford another baby accessory (I get it!) and feel they must use a car seat in the stroller, make sure the baby is securely fastened into the car seat at all times and, per the Mayo Clinic, try to limit their car seat time to under 2 hours.
Outside of the car (or the stroller if you must use a car seat), experts stress you should never allow a baby to sleep or just hang out in the car seat.
“It is essential that they not spend inordinate amounts of time sitting, just because it is more convenient for the adults around them,” said Tombrello.
With all this in mind, I have to ask myself: Would it really have been that unrealistic to physically remove my infant from her car seat when not in the car? It seems to me, investing in a bassinet or lie-flat stroller seat instead of using the car seat in the stroller seems doable. We needed a separate stroller six months later, anyway, when she grew out of her infant car seat.
Sure, waking a sleeping baby to take her out of the car may mean months of sleepless colicy hell, but that’s nothing compared to the lifetime of guilt I would feel knowing I could have prevented SIDS… or even slightly reduced my child’s risk of cancer.
We’re the lucky ones. Whether or not we’re worried about the risk, at least we’re aware of it and can make an educated decision about what’s right for our families.
Unfortunately, most parents and caregivers have no idea that sleeping in a car seat is in any way unsafe. I encourage you to share this information far and wide to give every parent in your life the same opportunity to make their own educated decision.
Comment below or on Facebook. We want to hear what you think!
Are we favoring convenience over caution? Are we overreacting? Will this information change how you use your car seat?
NOTE: This story has been updated to clarify points addressed in the comments below.