Friday, December 22, 2006

Restraining parents redux

Many months ago I wrote about Steve Levitt's research into the need for car safety seats for children. The evidence: there was little need. Now Emily Brazelon in Slate reports on a New Zealand study that shows that babies might actually stop breathing in car seats. While the Levitt study has been controversial, the New Zealand study is not. You would think that might cause us to wonder about these safety devices and their merits. But Brazelon is resolute: she will continue to use them but more anxiously. She also laments that anxiety is the last thing she needs.

In theory, at least, the problem that the New Zealand study identified wasn't an off-label use. The babies could have stopped breathing while on a drive (as opposed to the common practice of leaving your kid to sleep in his car seat because you need a convenient place to stash him). The researchers suggest "modifying car safety seats so that head flexion is unlikely." Maybe this is an easy engineering fix—and a potential boon to the company that develops a safer car seat. Until then, the researchers have another suggestion: "If possible, an adult should ride in the back seat next to your baby to watch him closely."

Ugh—a new opportunity for car seat one-upsmanship. Now responsible parenthood requires exile to the cramped, sticky, nausea-inducing back seat! This is when I long for the 1970s, when kids bounced around in the way backs of station wagons, footloose and seatbelt free. Except that kids died in car crashes in higher rates back then, too. On this front, at least, our safety-tip-saturated era holds out the promise of less risk. The problem is deciding when you've reached the point of diminishing returns, or absurdity, or whatever you want to call your own limit. It's safer to stay home, after all, than to drive with your kid, car seat or no car seat. But responsible parenthood can't mean acting on every piece of safety information—besides being impossible, that would make your kids crazy. So instead of moving to the back seat to watch over your sleeping baby, maybe try this: Look back at him, and if his head falls onto his chest, make sure he's OK. You get to sit in the front seat, and he gets to breathe.

And this after she freely admits to doing what all parents do, compromise.

If the drive is long enough, at some point you'll be faced with an unwelcome moment of truth: Are you the kind of mother who stops the car when your baby really protests, so you can give him a break in utter safety? Or do you climb into the back seat and grimly release him—to nurse, and oh please, to sleep—while your husband creeps along 10 miles below the speed limit? This is only the first in a series of unwelcome calculations that car seats necessitate: Do you lug yours along for every taxi ride? What about every flight? Can you swear that your child has been properly strapped and buckled in for every trip until he reached the American Academy of Pediatrics-recommended height of 57 inches and weight of 80 pounds?

It has to happen. In Australia, no one takes car seats on planes even though the little safety card in planes has one row with a child clearly sitting a car seat on them. Taxis are another problem. With planning, if you need to take one you can arrange for a car seat. But that planning is difficult to manage; especially when really travelling. And then what happens when you ship other people's kids around?

The moral of all this is that we need much more nuanced advice. At the moment, it is all black and white. Use a car seat or die. This is not actually the case and a more reasonable spectrum of risks needs to be presented. Parents are anxious enough to look at them carefully; let's give them the chance by providing information in what is hopefully a liability free manner.