This is the kind of “it could happen to you” story that no new parent wants to hear. In honor of what would have been their youngest son’s first birthday, two Michigan parents are hoping to raise awareness of the common sleep mistake that led to their then 3-month-old baby’s death.
In February 2015, Cooper Fales’ parents brought him home from day care in a covered car seat. According to his day care provider, a woman Zach and Mary Fales considered a family friend after caring for their children for four years, the baby had fallen asleep in his car seat, which she then covered with a blanket. Since it was cold outside, the Fales left the blanket on and made their normal trek home. When they took the blanket off the car seat after arriving home, they found their little boy blue and stiff inside.
Their day care provider is not being charged with any wrongdoing, although she has lost her childcare license. And now these grieving parents are doing everything in their power to warn parents just like them — the involved and attentive working parents — of the dangers of letting a baby sleep in the car seat.
The Fales’ message is an important one, considering that the risks that come with letting a baby sleep in a car seat have only made headlines in recent years. There are still generations of parents, grandparents and day care providers who see nothing wrong with letting a baby nap for hours in a car seat — a practice The Journal of Pediatrics declared an official danger just a few months ago.
Most new parents already have the basics drilled into them from the moment of conception: Sleep-related deaths are the most common cause of death among babies in their first year of life. In the past two decades, The American Academy of Pediatrics has taken a hard stance on putting all babies to sleep on their backs on a firm mattress, without blankets, in a SIDS awareness campaign that has saved thousands of young lives.
But as Cooper’s parents found out in a tragic turn of events, these sleep guidelines are only telling part of the story. The newest recommendations that are oh-so-slowly infiltrating social media, met with resistance from parents who are sick of hearing yet another parenting rule to worry about, is that babies shouldn’t be left to sleep anywhere outside the safety of their crib. This means no “alternative sleep environments,” like car seats, bouncers and swings, that Hershey Medical Center researchers believe present a hidden hazard to parents.
We saw this danger lead to Cooper’s death, and The Journal of Pediatrics study proves this is not an isolated incident. When researchers analyzed 47 infant death records associated with sitting and carrying devices in 2015, two thirds of the deaths involved car seats. Fifty-two percent of those car seat deaths were caused by strangulation from car seat straps. Because of the severity of this danger, researchers extended the “no sleeping in car seats” warning from age newborn to toddler. While testing a car seat safety insert to prevent infant suffocation in 2013, University of Auckland researchers issued the same warning: Never, ever leave a young baby to sleep in a car seat.
The most heartbreaking part of the Fales’ story is that letting a baby nap in a car seat is something we have all done at least once. This is exactly why the Fales hope that Cooper’s short life can be used to prevent another tragedy — by putting a face to the danger so that more parents will take it seriously.
To minimize this life-threatening risk, it’s as simple as waking your baby up and moving him to his crib when you get home from day care or the grocery store. You can also share this information with grandparents and childcare providers to make sure everyone caring for your infant is on the same page. With this kind of danger, there is no gray area: Car seats, bouncers, strollers and swings should be used for their intended purpose, under the supervision of a parent. A safe, flat surface like a crib is for sleeping.