An important study in the September 2001 issue of Pediatrics measured how well newborns breathe in car seats. The researchers compared 50 healthy, slightly preterm babies (born at 35-36 weeks) to 50 healthy term newborns. Surprisingly, the amount of oxygen in the blood (and getting to the brain) declined in all of the babies in both groups as they rode in their car seats.
The lowered oxygen levels were significant but not dangerous for most children. Among the premature babies, 12% had periods of apnea (absent breathing) or bradycardia (depressed heart rate), accompanied with significantly decreased oxygen levels (this would endanger about 20,000 near-term babies in the US each year).
This study supports the American Academy of Pediatrics’ too-seldom-followed recommendation that all preterm babies be observed in a car seat for fit and for breathing stability before discharge from the hospital. The findings also suggest that car travel be minimized for all babies (and especially preterm babies) before they are able to support their heads.
Car seats and baby swings have become convenient spots for babies between car trips. Likewise, extended non-travel use of these seats should be discouraged until the babies are able to support their heads.