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Sleeping in Car Seat: Are Travel System Strollers Bad?

When I was getting ready to become a parent things seemed clear to me: a stroller was to take the baby outside, a carrier was needed for when things weren’t accessible with a stroller or the baby wanted me around the house, and a car seat was needed for car rides.

A baby sleeping in car seat during a walk wasn’t something normal to me, as a European. I was pretty stunned when I started researching the best strollers and most manufacturers in the US recommended travel systems (infant car seat clipped on top of the stroller) for newborns as the ultimate solution.

Basically, until the baby was ready to hold their head and sit in a toddler chair of the stroller, to American parents the solution was to get car seat adapters and drive the baby around in a car seat on top of the stroller. It was called the travel system.

Why You Will Rarely See Infants in Car Seats on Top of Strollers in Europe

As someone who grew up in Europe and had a first child in Europe, the travel system for daily usage was unthinkable. In Europe everyone simply uses the bassinet on top of the stroller and a car seat for the in and out of the car.

Those who live outside of big cities where public transportation might be limited might put an infant bucket seat car on top of the stroller for a quick getaway, but never for an all-day outing. The car seat would stay in the car and parents take the baby out and put it in a stroller bassinet.

In the US on the other hand, bassinets are almost never used. The trendiest car seat is Doona, which is basically a car seat with wheels. Yet, many people use it as their full-time stroller for their newborns.

Ironically, Doona has received a lot of criticism in Europe ever since they first launched and it was never as popular as in the US. This is why they recently launched a new Europen version of Doona with a flat recline feature to win some customers over.

Why do Americans let their babies sleep in car seats?

Why do Americans not follow the same advice when it comes to sleeping in car seat as Europeans? Ironically, as American pediatric recommendations for safe sleep are much stricter than European ones.

I think it’s due to convenience and herd mentality. We can’t deny that it’s convenient to transition from car to stroller to home or daycare throughout the day without removing the baby from the car seat, unless it’s for a diaper change or feeding.

With American lifestyle being so dependant on cars, it’s convenient to just take the whole car seat out with the baby rather than transfer a baby to a bassinet. Especially when they fall asleep and aren’t great sleepers. But, it introduces unsafe sleeping practices for a few moments of peace…

You can even see daycares in the US keeping babies in their car seats during drop off, just so they can do more. Outside of Boston and parents rolling with their Uppababy, you almost never see a bassinet on top of the strollers.

Is It Fine to Let Baby Sleep in Car Seat?

Absolutely not! According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, babies should sleep safely in a flat, and empty sleep space like a crib or bassinet. Your baby is in danger of suffocation due to positional asphyxia if they’re sleeping on an inclined surface like a swing, or a car seat.

Positional asphyxia occurs when the positioning of the child’s head and neck block the airway. You might not even notice as they simply snooze off and quietly suffocate. It also can cause issues with older babies as well, particularly when the car seat is used not in the car.

It’s all due to the angle of the car seat that can cause cardiorespiratory issues in infants below 6 months if they’re in car seats for extended periods. Here’s one of many studies done by people much more knowledgeable than me.

Obviously, you should be using a car seat in the car to keep a baby safe, but outside of the car it’s a different story. Which brings us to the next point:

sleeping in car seat

How Long Can Baby Sleep in Car Seat?

Let’s be real: babies will fall asleep in their car seats in the car, there’s no way around it. If you’re driving with a baby it’s obviously not possible, legal, or safe to keep the baby out of the car seat.

If for some reason you don’t want to buy a stroller with a bassinet (which I highly recommend also as babies overheat more in car seats than bassinets), you can get a car seat that reclines which can be used as a travel system on top of the stroller. That way your baby will be safe as they’ll be sleeping in a flat position when out of the car.

By buying a car seat that reclines (in the US there’s Cybex Cloud G, but you can also get an older version: Cybex Cloud Q from Albee Baby).

The official recommendation is 2 hours in the 24-hour cycle, but the less the better, and newborns under 4 weeks newborns should spend 30 minutes a day at a maximum in a car seat).

Transfer the baby to a safe sleeping place like a bassinet on the stroller, or their crib. Your baby might wake up obviously, but that’s the safest option and you can soothe the baby back to sleep. It’s better to be safe than sorry.

What about sleeping in car seat on a plane?

I feel like it’s a controversial topic, because most self-proclaimed car seat specialists in the US tell you to always bring a car seat on the plane. Outside of the US, car seats on planes are really not a thing at all.

While FAA claims it’s safer to have a child in a car seat on the plane it’s not always the case, especially when it comes to smaller babies. Why?

If your flight is an hour long and your baby likes the car seat, you might as well bring it if you can pay for the extra seat.

What if you fly overnight on flights that can be 8, 12, or even 15 hours long? There’s been only 1 death EVER associated with a child traveling without a car seat on the plane, the chance of an accident is close to zero… especially when you are given special seatbelts for lap infants everywhere outside of the US.

Your child won’t be able to lie flat for hours if you bring a car seat, being forced to sleep in car seat and that’s a risk.

A bigger cause of injuries to children on planes (than the lack of car seat) is burns from hot drinks cause 39% of injuries to children on planes. This is why I always advise parents with lap infants to sit anywhere BUT the aisle seat, even though it seems convenient to get in and out.

On the other hand, you can safely secure the baby in an airplane bassinet where they can sleep safely on a flat surface, but if you bring a car seat you won’t have access to it (car seats aren’t allowed in bulkhead rows on 90% of airlines).

baby sleeping in an airplane seat

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