A baby’s car seat is essential and one of the most important baby gear items you will purchase before your newborn arrives. The absolute best and safest place for a baby inside of a moving car is buckled into an appropriate car seat! However, outside of a moving car, a car seat is NOT the best place for a baby. Outside of the car, parents will want their baby in spaces and positions to foster their baby’s best development and a car seat is NOT one of those places. Hopefully, I can help spread understanding about the best spaces for your baby’s development and also spread understanding that the best place to leave your baby’s car seat is inside the car.
Car seats have been designed to be very convenient for parents to move and carry their baby for almost every activity except changing a diaper. You’ll see babies being carried in a car seat from their car into home, into the store, onto a shopping cart, into a restaurant, set up to the restaurant table, sitting in church, going for a walk that attaches to a stroller, sleeping at home… As a mom of three, I completely understand the importance of convenience on days when I am sleep-deprived and stressed to the max. (Those days happen too often!) But just like the convenience of feeding my older children fast food from the drive-thru each day, convenient options for parents are NOT always the best choice for your children.
*This post contains Amazon affiliate links as a convenient way to find recommended products.
WHY NOT A CARSEAT (OR OTHER SEMI-RECLINED BABY GEAR)?
A baby’s first year of development is primarily about learning through her sensory system, integrating the sensations she receives from the world, and producing important motor movements with the information she has gathered from her sensory world. The sensations babies are processing include: sight, sound, touch, taste, smell, movement and muscle and joint input. As a baby begins to understand this sensory input, she begins to experiment with her own new body in response and in anticipation to these sensations. These responses may include calming and falling asleep when being swaddled, sung a lullaby and rocking back and forth in the arms of her sweet-smelling mama. Anticipation may include recognizing the face and smell of her mama who breastfeeds her or recognizing what a bottle looks like, showing exciting movements and opening her mouth in anticipation to suck her bottle, swallow her milk, fill her tummy and interact with her caregiver during her feeding. As a baby is exposed to the sensations of the world, she develops ways to move and navigate through her world, and as she moves more in her world, she learns more and more and in turn develops more and more ideas and skills, with the cycle going on and on…
Car seats, especially with a car seat cover (as cute as they are), significantly limit a baby’s ability to interact with his sensory world outside of the car seat. Sights are obstructed, sound is muffled, touch and smell are blocked, and movement, muscle and joint activation is limited when a baby is buckled into a car seat, therefore limiting a baby’s ability to learn and develop ideas and motor skills to navigate and understand his world.
Positioning and buckling a baby into a semi-reclined position restricts movement. If a baby spends too much time in this position, it can cause other developmental concerns, including flattening of a baby’s soft skull (plagiocephaly is the medical term) and muscle imbalances of the neck (torticollis is the medical term). Plagiocephaly or flattening of the skull may require a helmet to reshape your baby’s head. Torticollis or muscle imbalances of the neck can lead to even further developmental motor concerns for your baby if not addressed appropriately. Too much time in car seats, bouncy chairs, swings or other baby-holding gear with a semi-reclined sitting position can often cause and will always make both of these conditions worse. (Torticollis can develop despite good positioning habits, but good positioning habits are always an important part of a good treatment plan and prevention plan for plagiocephaly and torticollis.)
As an occupational therapist treating babies with developmental concerns, including torticollis, plagiocephaly, motor and sensory delays, I recommended that babies be in car seats, bouncy chairs, swings or other semi-reclined positioning baby gear no more than 20 minutes at a time and no longer than 2 hours a day, unless the baby is required to be buckled safely in a carseat for a longer car ride. I find that these are good recommendations for all babies to foster their best overall development.
WHERE ARE THE BEST SPACES FOR A BABY’S DEVELOPMENT?
The best spaces for a baby’s development is… (drumroll please…) BEING HELD IN YOUR ARMS or ON THE FLOOR or other flat surface! So simple, so inexpensive, but so important for your baby!
Hold your baby, snuggle your baby, rock your baby or recruit happy helpers to do this when your arms need to be doing something else. Don’t underestimate the importance of holding your baby! When my babies were little, I liked to pass hand sanitizer to any happy helper willing to hold my babies or at least wrap them in a blanket to avoid passing germs. Don’t be surprised if I happen to sit by you and your buckled baby and ask if I may hold him. (Yes, you can ask me to use hand sanitizer too.) When you are holding your baby, he is immersed in calming sensations similar to the womb from which he’s recently come.
Flat surfaces are best for your baby’s motor development. Lay your baby down on a blanket on the floor. Lay your baby on her flat crib mattress or in the flat surface of a playard (also called pack ‘n play or play pen). Lay your baby in a stroller that lays down flat. Allow your baby to lie on her back, on her side and yes, her tummy for essential tummy time to foster good motor development. (Remember when putting your baby down to sleep, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends lying her on her back. Your baby’s supervised awake time is best for tummy time. Click to see the AAP Safe Sleep Recommendations.) Your baby can look around, focus on your face to smile at you, listen to the sounds around her, find her hands to suck on them, move her head from side to side, kick her legs back and forth, practice picking her head up… As a baby gets older and her motor skills develop, the floor is still the best place, but movement will include pushing up onto her hands while on her tummy, rolling over, sitting up, crawling and learning to walk. She can’t build strong foundations to learn or practice these motor skills well while buckled into a car seat or other baby-holding gear.
WHAT BABY GEAR WILL FOSTER MY BABY’S BEST DEVELOPMENT?
Going for a walk? Going to the store? Or even going to a restaurant? Use a baby wrap or baby carrier that can allow your arms to be free, but still allow the sensory experiences of being held in your arms. Strollers that can lay down to a flat surface are best for your baby until he has stable head and trunk control and can sit up in a buckled stroller seat. While lying flat in a stroller, your baby can still move freely and will not be positioned to cause developmental concerns, such as plagiocephaly (head flattening) and torticollis (neck muscle imbalance).
If you are concerned about putting your baby on the floor, use a playard with a flat surface. (Some playards come with “napping” attachments that are in a semi-reclined position. Don’t use these.) Some playards come with a bassinet option that is a raised flat surface. These are great sleeping and playing options for newborns that can’t sit up and reach over the edge. When your child is able sit or stand, you will want to remove the bassinet option and place her on the bottom surface. Flat surfaces for sleeping and playing are always best for the motor development of your baby.
Below are some examples of baby gear with options to position your baby and foster the best developmental opportunities so can you leave your baby’s car seat in the car and put away your semi-reclined baby holding gear. Click on the following link if you’d like to create an Amazon Baby Registry and add any of these items.
STROLLERS WITH A FLAT RECLINE AND/OR FLAT BASSINET ATTACHMENT:
Some travel system strollers with car seats included have great full recline or bassinet options. But remember that you will want to choose these full recline/bassinet features, not the “snap ‘n go” feature of using a car seat in the stroller.
Graco DuoGlide Click Connect Double Stroller (The rear seat reclines fully, even though it is not pictured.)
Evenflo Sibby Stroller (Although this picture shows the car seat clicked into the stroller, I recommend using the stroller in the full recline position without the car seat.)
Joovy Scooter X2 Double Stroller (Both seats recline to “near-napping” position, even though the reclined position is not pictured.)
*I am part of the Amazon Associates Program. If you choose to buy any of these products from Amazon, I’d love for you to purchase them through the links on my website to help support the work I do with Yums Theraplay! Thank you!