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Experts say car seat add-on intended to prevent slumping can be 'dangerous'

Parents may buy head support headbands or straps to help kids rest comfortably in car seats, but the products can cause injuries.
/ Source: TODAY

Parents often see their children slumped over sleeping in their car seats and wonder if that could possibly be comfortable — or safe. That’s why some might turn to products, often referred to as car seat head support headbands or straps, to help their children snooze upright. But experts warn that these car seat add-ons can be dangerous.

“You should definitely not use products like these. They are definitely not safe for babies and children to use in car seats,” Erin Baughn, an injury prevention specialist with Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan, told TODAY Parents. “It looks uncomfortable to us ... to have our child’s head flopping forward in their car seat if they fall asleep. However, they are completely safe to have their head flopping forward as long as they are old enough to have that head control.”

While parents might buy extra products for car seats because they think they’re helping their children, experts agree that using car seats as instructed offers the most protection.

“Anything that does not come with the car seat from the car seat manufacturers should not be used,” Courtney Gleaton, injury prevention coordinator at Orlando Health Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children, told TODAY. “Car seats are going to have very specific instructions and warnings about what types of items you can use with their seats and which ones you cannot.”

Many parents worry that their children’s awkward positioning might cause them to feel uncomfortable or even suffocate via what’s known as positional asphyxiation. This can occur when babies rest in such a way that they’re not able to breathe freely. While that can happen to infants, it does not occur in children with adequate head and neck strength.

“As far as our older child that just falls asleep in the car and looks uncomfortable to us as parents, they are completely fine,” Baughn said. “We don’t have to worry about that positional asphyxiation when the car seat is installed correctly in the car.”

Newborns do not have the neck strength to hold their heads up to prevent suffocation. That’s why newborn car seats look the way they do. These seats, which are rear facing, cradle and support babies’ heads.

“It’s so important to make sure that the car seat is installed correctly and rear facing for those babies that don’t have that head control,” Baughn said. “Rear facing car seats work phenomenally well.”

Experts agree that older children’s heads should be free in their car seats, especially in case of an accident. Holding back their heads can cause devastating injuries.

“If you restrain your child’s head ... the car seat is no longer going to perform the way that the car seat manufacturers have designed it,” Baughn said. “Potentially, that child’s neck could actually separate from their spinal cord. We call that internal decapitation.”

What’s more, car seat head support straps could obstruct their airways.

“That little headband could slide down and maybe be a choking hazard, or it could cover their mouth and nose ... which can cause suffocation,” Gleaton explained. “Any of those things could be dangerous for a child in an accident.”

But experts understand why many parents buy such products. They believe they’re helping their children.

“They are really just thinking they’re doing the right thing,” Gleaton said. “Like, ‘Well, their neck looks like it hurts, maybe I should put this headband on it so it doesn’t go forward.’”

Knowing how to install car seats or what to use with them can feel overwhelming. But parents can go to Safe Kids to locate a nearby child passenger safety technician. Often these experts offer car seat installation or car seat checks at fire departments or other community spaces along with individual help. If parents have questions about their car seats, they can read the manual or contact the company to learn more.

Above all, experts agree that properly using the right car seat for a child is the best thing parents can do.

“Correctly used child safety seats can reduce the risk of death in as much as 71 percent,” Gleaton said. “Just using your car seats the correct way, you can reduce the risk of death.”

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