Life with a newborn is anything but easy. There are frequent feedings, diaper blowouts — and did we mention the serious lack of sleep? That’s why you might go to any lengths for them to get some shut eye, which can mean rocking your baby, letting them contact sleep, or even buckling Baby into their car seat and hitting the road instead. But just when you thought that they were safely snoozing, (and you can get a few moments of peace), you spy your child’s chin is resting on their chest. It can be a scary sight, and it might make your wonder how to keep Baby’s head from flopping forward in their car seat. Knowing what to do can make all the difference between safe sleep and a risky ride.
While you might think of your car as a mere mode of transportation, to your baby, it’s so much more. In fact, a car ride is kind of like being back in the womb again. Think about it: they’re snug in their seat (just like they were inside your belly), it’s usually warm inside your car (like the toasty 98.6 degrees in utero), and all that bumping they feel during the ride is like when you were rocking that bump. But breathing is a big issue, and you’re probably petrified that by sleeping chin-to-chest, they could be cutting their air supply — and you just might be right, depending on their age. “Babies at the highest risk are newborns through six months, says Denise Scott, M.D., a pediatrician and pediatric endocrinologist with JustAnswer. “That’s why it’s of prime importance to ensure proper use of the car seat, at the correct angle of recline, and the precise use of any head supports to provide a safe and secure riding environment for your infant.”
Still, you might question why your child’s head keeps falling forward. Here’s how to fix it.
Why does my baby’s head keep flopping in their car seat?
From planes, trains, and automobiles, there’s always that one person who snoozes with their head falling forward. Well, babies are particularly susceptible to sleeping with their chin to their chest when they’re in their car seat — and it all has to do with their neck. “Your baby’s head may flop forward in their car seat because their neck muscles are not strong enough to support their head yet,” explains Dr. Bidisha Sarkar, M.D., a pediatrician and child specialist at ClinicSpots. “Babies have large heads compared to their body size, and they need time to develop the strength and coordination to hold them up.” This happens when they’re sleeping or relaxed, since their muscles tend to relax as well.
But assessing the risk all depends on your child’s age and their development. Newborns range from birth to 3 months of age, and they are the ones most at risk of suffocation. “Newborns are at the most risk from improper use of car seats,” says Scott. “Since a newborn lacks muscle strength, their head can flip forward which can cut off their airway.” Older babies tend to have more strength, and therefore mover control over their head movements, which reduces their risk to a certain degree.
Is it dangerous when your baby’s head flops forward in their car seat?
Now, an occasional slight head slope forward might not be a big deal while Baby is in their car seat, but how far (and often) their head falls forward matters. “If it’s just a slight tilt, it may not be a big problem,” says Scott. “However, if it is a severe or frequent flop, it can pose some risks.” It might affect their breathing, since their airway can become partially or completely blocked by their chin on their chest. When that happens, their blood flow and oxygen supply can be affected, potentially interfering with their brain development.
Is this position uncomfortable for your baby?
Seeing your baby slumped forward in their car seat might make you cringe, but are they uncomfortable? Perhaps, says Sarkar. “Your baby may or may not feel uncomfortable when their head flops forward in their car seat,” she says. “Some babies may not mind it at all, while others may feel irritated or distressed by it.” Fortunately, you can easily observe if your child is having sweet dreams or is distressed simply by looking at them. “For example, if they are crying, fussing, gasping, snoring, or choking, they may be having trouble breathing or feeling pain,” she adds. “If they are awake, they may also try to lift their head or turn it to the side.”
Should you move your baby’s head back if it falls forward in their car seat?
It can be scary to see your child’s head leaning forward, so you should try to reposition them. “If you notice that your baby’s head has flopped forward in their car seat, you should try to move it back gently and carefully,” advises Sarkar. “You can use your hand to support their chin and lift their head slightly.” Propping up their head isn’t a good idea, since it could also block their airway. But if you’re going to boost Baby’s head up with your hands, be careful to do so gently so you don’t accidentally injure their head or neck — or worse, wake them up.
“Some of the infant seats will actually come with head supports intended to be used with that particular seat, meaning the support has been tested,” adds Scott. “These are typically side supports to keep the head in place.” While it’s perfectly fine for your child’s head to be turned to the side, never place anything in their car seat (like a pillow) to nix the newborn head slump and cause their head to fall forward. And if you do decide to move your child’s head but you’re behind the wheel, pull over when it’s safe to do so and readjust them as necessary.
How can you prevent your baby’s head from slumping?
Of course, the best option is to position your child’s car seat to the proper position. But if you thought that you could recline their seat so far back that they’re almost in a prone position, think again. “Don’t tilt the car seat too far back, as this can also pose some risks,” warns Sarkar. “For example, it can reduce the effectiveness of the car seat in case of a crash, as it can cause your baby to slide out of the harness or hit their head on the back of the seat.” It can also cause your baby to have a poor posture or a curved spine, which can affect their growth and development.
No matter what measures you take, safety starts with having the correct car seat for your child’s age, weight, and height. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends keeping Baby in a rear-facing car seat until they reach the maximum height or weight limit of the seat, which is usually around 2 years old or more. Rear-facing car seats offer more protection for your baby’s head, neck, and spine in the case of a crash. “Adjust the recline angle of the car seat to suit your baby’s needs,” says Sarkar. “The car seat should be reclined enough to support your baby’s head and neck, but not too much that it compromises their breathing.” Be sure to find a balance between reclining and upright positions for your baby’s car seat and always follow the instructions from the car seat manufacturer.
Seeing your little sweetie’s head slumped forward in their car seat can leave you feeling breathless. So if they fall asleep, try to monitor their head position and readjust them as necessary, especially if they’re a newborn. That way, you can have a more relaxed ride and keep Baby safely snoozing.