Photo: Getty Images
Helen MacLeod struggled to get her first baby to fall and stay asleep, for months on end. “She was up every 45 to 90 minutes almost every night for her entire first year,” she recalls.
When she told a friend that her daughter wouldn’t nap unless she was held, the friend lent her a baby swing to try. “The only independent naps she took that lasted more than 20 minutes were the ones in the swing,” says the now mom of two from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Still, she had a nagging feeling that it wasn’t safe for her baby to sleep in the swing. “I think I had read enough of the SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) prevention materials—about only an empty crib being safe—to feel like a swing was breaking the rules,” says MacLeod.
MacLeod was right—safe sleep rules say that babies should sleep alone on a firm, flat surface without any loose bedding or objects near them. Swings don’t meet that criterion, says Ben Hoffman, a pediatrician and the chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ council on Injury, Violence and Poison Prevention.
“Using a swing when the baby is awake and supervised is OK, but once a baby falls asleep in the swing, it becomes dangerous,” he explains. Hoffman says one concern when there's a baby sleeping in a swing is that their head can flop forward, which can obstruct their airway—it's called positional asphyxiation.
That risk exists if your baby is sleeping in an inclined bouncer or car seat as well. With an infant bucket seat, the benefit of having the baby safely strapped into a properly installed car seat in a moving vehicle outweighs the risk. However, once you’ve arrived at your destination, you should take your baby out of the seat. Car seat stroller attachments aren’t a good option either, as they often have the baby at an even more upright angle than they would be in the car.
Other concerns are that your baby could turn their head and suffocate against the soft padding, become entangled in the straps, or roll over in the swing. (Even if parents use the straps properly, sometimes the baby can still roll.)
Safe sleep experts have been advocating for sleeping on a firm, flat surface for years, but the issue made headlines in 2019 when a popular sleeping device made by Fisher Price, called a Rock ‘n Play Sleeper, was recalled in the United States after a Consumer Reports investigation found that in the past ten years, 32 babies had died while in it. By February 2020, those sleepers, and other similar devices, had been linked to 73 deaths and over 1,000 incidents, some of which led to serious injuries.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) urged parents to stop using any infant products with inclined backs of more than 10 degrees for sleep, including car seats, bouncers and other inclined infant products, though swings were not specifically mentioned in their October 2019 statement.
Hoffman, however, says swings are just as risky as the other devices. “We have grave concerns about any infant sleeping at an incline regardless of the device. There have been a number of reports and papers published over the years around the dangers of infants sleeping in positional devices, whether it’s swings or car seats or inclined sleepers,” Hoffman adds.
The CPSC statement came after an independent study by a baby biomechanics expert and mechanical engineer at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences looked at what happens when babies aged two to six months sleep at various inclines.
“We found evidence to suggest that this inclined position on a non-rigid surface may make it easier for babies to roll over, but harder for them to roll back,” noted study author Erin Mannen, in a press release. Even if parents think their babies can’t roll over yet, there’s always a first time. And in fact, in many of the death reports they examined, the parents said it was the first time the babies had ever rolled.
While many inclined sleepers have been recalled in the U.S., infant swings are still on the market, and that’s because the manufacturers don’t market them as sleep devices. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t used that way. Many babies have trouble falling asleep in a flat, still crib, but will conk right out in a carrier, stroller, car seat or gently rocking swing.
“Parents are reacting to the situation and just doing what works at the time to get that nap or that bedtime in,” says Alanna McGinn, a sleep consultant and owner of the Good Night Sleep Site. “They’re just doing what they can to survive at the moment.”
Many parents believe an inclined position (like in a bouncer or a swing) can ease the symptoms of acid reflux in babies, but Hoffman says it doesn’t really help. “Keeping an infant with reflux fully upright for 20-30 minutes after a feed can decrease reflux, but semi-upright may actually make it worse,” he says.
The safest thing a parent can do if their baby falls asleep in a swing, says Hoffman, is to take them out and move them into a crib or bassinet. “As a pediatrician and father, though, I’m practical enough to understand that that’s not what parents are always going to do. Babies are going to sleep in things, and if they are, parents need to acknowledge that it's a dangerous situation, and they cannot leave the baby unattended. That baby requires constant supervision.”
While you’re observing your baby, you should look out for things like their head flopping forward, or any signs of respiratory distress, like color changes or noisy breathing.
McGinn adds that if you want to develop good sleep habits, you need to get your baby used to sleeping in their crib anyway. “What I tell parents is the only way your baby is going to get used to their crib is by putting them in their crib and being really consistent with it,” she says, even if they cry or protest at first. You have to stick with it for it to work.
By the time MacLeod had her second baby, she had learned more about the risk of inclined sleep, specifically positional asphyxiation. “We didn’t use the swing with our second,” says MacLeod. It just didn’t feel safe.
Keep up with your baby's development, get the latest parenting content and receive special offers from our partners