Are newborn babies safe in car seats – what you need to know

If you've seen the worrying headlines about young babies being at risk of breathing problems when sitting in a car seat, don't panic. We've got the full story behind the research and how you can keep your baby safe

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You may have seen or heard worrying reports in the media questioning whether newborn babies are safe if they sit in a car seat for just 30 minutes. The Sun online even ran with the shocking headline ‘Dead in 20 Minutes’ – Babies ‘shouldn’t be taken for anything but the shortest car trips due to suffocation risk’.

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But scary headlines like this don’t help anyone. We’ve carefully looked at the original study, and exactly what the researchers are saying, and explain what this really means for all of us…

So what’s the story?

  • Headlines like The Sun’s are an extreme response to the results of a British study, carried out by researchers at Swindon’s Great Western Hospital, the University of Southampton and the University of Bristol and commissioned by the Lullaby Trust
  • The study was a small one looking at newborn babies 
  • It involved 21 premature babies and 19 full term babies
  • Babies were strapped into a car seat and the test included a simulated 30 mph journey, where the babies were sitting at a 40 degree angle (as they would be in most car seats in a car)

What the researchers found

  • When the babies sat in the car seat for 30 minutes, their heart and breathing rate increased, and their blood oxygen levels were lower compared with lying flat in a cot
  • This happened when the babies were both stationary in the car seat and ‘moving’ in the car simulator
  • These effects were more marked with premature babies but still seen with term babies

Should I be worried?  

Aware yes, worried no. Much more research needs to be done before any clear conclusions can be drawn. But there are steps you can take now to keep your baby safe while in the car. 

Still, the key advice right now, according to the experts – even those behind the study – is that currently the safest way for a baby to travel in a car is in a car seat. Period. 

So if your baby has to travel in a car, you should still use a car seat. It’s also required by law. 

Secondly, the report itself states that “we cannot be certain of the clinical significance or potential risks”‘. So the researchers themselves aren’t clear whether the lower levels of oxygen create a serious risk, or mean your baby could be at risk of stopping breathing. 

They just don’t know how dangerous or not lower levels of oxygen are for your baby. 

But, this IS an important first study. It’s raised some questions and what all the experts are saying is that more research is needed with a much bigger sample of babies. 

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What else do the experts say?

Dr Renu Arya, the consultant paediatrician at Great Western Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust who led the research project, said the study should not put mums and dads off using car seats when traveling, stating:

 “Parents should not stop using car safety seats to transport their infants. Infants must be protected in moving vehicles, and UK law requires car seats be used whenever infants travel in cars. However, our findings support the AAP (American Academy of Paediatrics’) guideline that infant car seats should not be used as a routine infant sleep environment.”

Meanwhile, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents advises parents to take a 15 minutes break every two hours to relieve their own fatigue and give their baby a break from their car seat – something which was echoed by Francine Bates, chief executive of the Lullaby Trust, who said:

“We recommend that parents also avoid driving long distances without a break. However, avoiding the risk of injury due to a road traffic accident is paramount and fitted car seats should always be used to transport babies and toddlers. It is clear that further research is needed to explore what more we can do to ensure babies are safe and comfortable when travelling in a car seat and we will be convening an urgent summit of leading child car seat manufacturers to take this forward in the autumn.”

However, it has to be said that one of the researchers, Professor Peter Fleming, is issuing stronger advice. In an interview with the BBC, Professor Fleming stated that newborn babies could be at risk of suffocating when taken on long car journeys, and that there should be separate car seat safety advice for very young babies. His stance was “If you can avoid a journey, it’s probably better to do so. Or restrict it to say 30 minutes or so.” 

What does this mean for me?

There are things that you can do today to make sure that your baby, even a newborn, travels as safely as possible in a car seat. 

1. Don’t use a car seat as a general place for your baby to sleep in. A car seat is for transporting your baby in a car. We know it’s a pain, but once you’re home you’ll need to wake your baby and transfer them to a cot, unless you have a lie-flat car seat

2. If you’re using a car seat in the first four weeks of your baby’s life, avoid using it for longer than 30 minutes, either in a car or as a combined period of time as part of a travel system.

3. If it’s unavoidable that your newborn has to travel in a car seat for longer than 30 minutes in those first four weeks, have an adult sitting in the back of the car with your baby to regularly check on them. Break your journey at least every 30 minutes, when you can take your baby out of the car seat for a short period of time. 

4. Don’t use a car seat for more than 2 hours in one go for all babies (whether newborn or older), either in a car or as part of a travel system. At MFM, we’re passionate about making sure parents know about the 2 hour rule.

5. Don’t be tempted to keep your baby for prolonged periods in a car seat when using it as part of a travel system. “The largest issue recognised for the ‘over use’ of car seats,” warns the Baby Products Association (BPA), “is when they are not used purely as a safety product in the car but when used combined with a stroller to form what is often called a ‘travel system’.”

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