As a parent, sleep is one of the most treasured commodities—whether it’s for you or your baby! When a baby is sleeping, everyone is happy. You get some rest, the chance to get some work done, or a little time to focus on yourself. This is good because you’re sleep-deprived and overwhelmed! You deserve some time to catch up and refresh. 

Unfortunately, because sleep is such a valuable thing, many loving moms are tempted to allow unsafe sleeping practices in exchange for those few moments of peace. We get it. But, mama, those moments aren’t worth the risk. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, babies should sleep safely in a flat, empty sleep space like a crib or play yard. Your baby is in danger if they’re sleeping on an inclined surface like a swing, bouncer, or — yes — their car seat.

Car seat safety is our number one priority around here. So, it’s important for us to talk about the inevitable situations where your baby falls asleep in moving cars. But, the truth is, even if they doze off on the way home, the car seat is not a substitute for their safe sleep space. Now, there’s a little more to it than that. So, today we’re giving you all the safe sleeping tips for babies when it comes to their car seat and your vehicle. 

Everything You Need to Know About Sleeping in a Car Seat 

Why Shouldn’t Babies Sleep in Car Seats?

Firstly, let’s dig a little deeper into the true function of car seats. We know that infant car seats, in particular, can easily become a one-step baby container — it’s just so convenient to transition from car to stroller to home throughout our busy day without removing the baby from the car seat. But when it comes down to it, car seats have one primary function: to keep our littlest passengers safe in a car crash.

This role — collision protection — is why babies ride in a semi-upright rear-facing position in the car, even though we know that laying flat is generally preferable for new babies. The priority when designing a car seat is not “What is the safest for sleeping?” Instead, it’s “What’s the safest for crashing?” And through thorough study and research, engineers and experts have determined the ideal incline that provides the best protection in a crash while still allowing little airways to remain open during proper and limited use. It’s so critical to protect those developing heads, necks, and spines!

Now that we’ve established what car seats are for — carrying devices for safe transportation — and why they’re designed how they are, let’s work our way through this important topic. Every baby will happen to fall asleep in their car seat at some point. How do we keep them safe in that scenario?

Dangers Of Sleeping In Car Seats

Positional Asphyxia

Most of you probably know that for a safe sleep environment, the AAP recommends a firm flat surface like a crib or bassinet. They further recommend that you only place the baby on his or her back. And avoid placing any loose items in the crib with the baby. Car seats, swings, and bouncers do not provide this type of environment and put babies at risk of positional asphyxia. Positional asphyxia occurs when the positioning of the child’s head and neck block the airway. Sleeping in an inclined seat, like a car seat or swing, can cause a chin-to-chest posture. When this happens, babies can suffocate and die quickly. And the scariest part is that a baby experiencing positional asphyxiation and a baby peacefully snoozing look the same — even to the most watchful, loving eye. This is why almost 4,000 infants die from positional asphyxiation every year — most typically while sleeping in an unsafe environment. 

How To Prevent Positional Asphyxiation In Car Seats

Correct Recline

The reason infants, specifically those under the age of one, are more at risk of positional asphyxiation is due to their head size and lack of neck strength. A baby’s head size is proportionally large compared to their tiny bodies. So when a baby falls asleep in the car or in an inclined swing, they may not have enough neck strength to hold their head up, even if their body signals that they need a breath of fresh air. Fortunately, when a car seat is properly reclined in its base or via baseless installation –or even in a compatible stroller for short periods of time — this is a really small risk. Car seats are designed to toe that line between crash protection and safe, airway-protective positioning; however, it can still happen in a moving car if the car seat is not being correctly used. Of course, the biggest risk comes into play when the car seat is removed from the vehicle. When the seat isn’t fixed at that optimum recline angle, the baby can end up more upright, increasing their risk.

Proper Harnessing

Though car seats are not designed for sleeping, manufacturers know ‌babies will be sleeping in them. We know there’s just no way around that! To protect our smallest passengers, the harness straps on that car seat play two roles: they keep the baby contained in a crash. And they’re also designed to keep the baby’s body in a safe position during routine use of the car seat. When the baby does fall asleep in the car seat, their snug harness keeps them in the safest position possible! This means that anytime the baby is in their car seat — even when outside of the car — the entire harness (chest clip and crotch buckle included) needs to be buckled and tightened correctly! We know how tempting it can be to look at your sweet napping baby in their stroller and unbuckle. Or at least loosen that car seat harness. But this poses a big risk! Without the support of the harness straps, baby is even more likely to slump down or forward into that dangerous position that causes positional asphyxiation. 

Always keep baby buckled!

Now that we’ve covered why car seats aren’t safe for routine sleep let’s go through some car seat sleeping tips to keep your little one safe during those unavoidable naps on the go!

The pinch test

Car Seat Sleeping Safety Tips

Install the seat at the proper recline.  

Most rear-facing car seats should be installed at a 30-45 degree angle, depending on the seat. Infant car seats naturally recline pretty far, closer to that 45-degree mark. And almost all of them have a recline indicator of some sort to help you find that sweet spot. Before your newborn gains head and neck control, you’ll want to follow your car seat’s manual to install it at the greatest allowable recline.

The same goes for young passengers using convertible car seats, such as the Graco Extend2Fit 2-in-1 Convertible Car Seat or the Safety 1st EverSlim. These seats should be used as reclined as allowed for younger babies. But older babies who are becoming mobile and have full head, neck, and torso control can safely sit more upright in these seats as they grow.

When your seat is installed properly, it’ll provide the safest position for sleep and for crash protection!

And yes – we totally get it. Installing a car seat correctly can be a real challenge. This is why we recommend chatting with a child passenger safety technician who is an expert on all things car seats. They’ll give you peace of mind that your car seat is as safe as possible. 

Installing and using a car seat

Keep a two-hour time limit. 

Car seats are engineered to find the perfect balance between crash protection and safe positioning. But the longer a baby spends in that halfway-upright position, the riskier the situation becomes. Little bodies shouldn’t spend extended amounts of time in the restrictive seated position of a car seat, whether awake or asleep — it can strain those developing bones and muscles. And, as we’ve explained, it eventually leads to positional asphyxiation.

So, if you’re headed on a long car ride, stop every two hours! Use this time to feed, change, and snuggle the baby. And take a quick walk around the rest stop so everyone’s ready to go again. Yes, even if baby is asleep as you roll into that parking lot. Everyone will appreciate the break!

When you’re spending your day closer to home, you still need to be mindful of baby’s car seat time! We know how easy it is to lose track when you’re rushing from school drop-off to the grocery store to the doctor’s office on a busy day. If you’re running a quick errand, sure, the convenience of the infant car seat might win out. But offer intentional breaks in between those shorter drives too, and avoid leaving baby in the car seat for long outings that will take more time.

Don’t be fooled by unregulated car seat “sleep tools.”

There are SO many unsafe car seat “sleep tools” out there. These devices claim to safely prop up baby’s head for a more comfortable snooze while riding in the car seat. We’ll spare you the details, but these devices are extremely dangerous. They aren’t crash-tested to any measurable standard, and they have been known to cause severe injury and death. 

It’s disappointing to see so many companies prioritizing profit over children’s safety, but that’s the reality of these unregulated products. Until we begin to see federal laws that address the marketing tactics and sale of these items, we’ll continue to see them sold in stores and advertised on our screens. Still, ONLY use the car seat products that came with your seat. Replacements or certain accessories from the car seat manufacturer are often fine but skip any other after-market products. If these “miracle car seat sleep solutions” seem too good to be true, they probably are! 

Transfer baby as soon as possible. 

Remember, even if your baby does fall asleep in the car, it’s still not a safe sleep environment. The minute you arrive at your destination and you no longer need the crash protection function, you should remove your baby from the car seat and transfer them to a crib, play yard, or bassinet. 

We know this is not easy and will often result in your kiddo waking from their slumber. Keep an eye on the big picture: this is all for their safety. It’s not worth the risk of leaving your baby in the car seat for a few more moments of quiet. 

Never put the car seat on the floor, counter, or table, and let baby sleep for an extended period of time. Remember, the position of a car seat changes when it’s not on its base or stroller. This position is super dangerous! Instead, do your best to transfer. If the baby wakes up, know you still made the best decision for the safety of your family.

Make sure baby is dressed appropriately. 

Cars can get hot fast. As the temperature rises, your baby could overheat or become dehydrated. Make sure when they’re in their car seat, they’re not wearing too many layers. Keep it light, and know you can always put a blanket on them over their snug harness straps. You can also check out this list of items that help keep the backseat cool even when the sun is beating down! 

Tell your baby’s caregivers. 

If others drive your child around, you’ll need to educate them on these same safe sleep principles. Your baby is at risk with anyone who may not be educated on car seat sleep safety. There are plenty of people who still allow their kiddos to snooze in a car seat in or out of the vehicle!

We know these conversations can be difficult. But remember, you are the boss when it comes to your kids! You get the final word on everything safety—whether that be safe swimming, safe eating, safe sleeping, or safe traveling. If that conversation is challenging for you, here’s an article that has some helpful tips on setting boundaries with friends and family.

A car seat is not a safe sleep space, so your child should never sleep for long stretches in a car seat, especially when it’s disconnected from the base or stroller.

We know that in homes with small children, getting good sleep is everything. It’s tempting to fall into unsafe sleep practices, but it’s never okay to take a gamble with your baby’s life. We know that inclined sleep positions are unsafe. And there are thousands of infant deaths occurred every year because of poor safe sleep education or unnecessary risk. 

If your baby is asleep in a car seat, make sure their car seat is used correctly that entire time and get them to a firm flat surface as soon as you can. This will keep your child safe and reduce the risk of position asphyxiation. 

It’s inevitable, and sometimes hoped for, that car ride nap! Let’s ensure your kiddos, from newborns to big kids, sleep safely in their seats. Neck control versus no neck control makes a major difference in whether your child’s sleep position is safe or not! Learn the ABCDs of safe sleep to keep your child breathing comfortably without dangerous added after-market products in our YouTube video. Click here to watch and share!

Safe Sleep in a Car Seat

Teaching parents like you about all things safety is our passion here at Safe in the Seat. We share all the information you need to make safe choices for your family. You can find more vital safety tips on our blog and our Instagram! Commit to safe car seat usage and make a difference in the life of your child and everyone you educate on the dangers. We’re proud of your safe choice! 

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