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Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Why I Won’t Use a Smart Cushion in My Kid's Car Seat

There are plenty of things to worry about as a parent, especially in the early days. Even if your child appears perfectly fine, it's hard to not constantly think: Are they warm enough? Are they eating enough? Is it nap time yet??

Then there are scarier things. Will they be allergic to this new food? Was that just spit up, or are they sick? What are the endless things that can go wrong, and can I see into the future and keep my baby safe?

I spent a lot of time as a new parent worrying. I can already predict that I'm always going to stay a little worried about my son, but he's almost a year old now and some of my fears around keeping a baby safe have started moving into the rearview mirror. For example, my fear of SIDS has been replaced with what kind of dangers he can get into as he starts walking, for example. But even as he begins toddlerhood, there's one danger that lurks: hot car death, which happens when children are left in hot cars. 

Especially as heat waves get worse, the danger of leaving my child behind in the car only grows. And hot cars aren't just a summertime fear; the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration warns that an outdoor temperature in mid-60s can cause a car's temperature to rise as high as 110 degrees Fahrenheit. According to the National Safety Council, a nonprofit focused on health and safety in the United States, around 38 children die per year in hot cars.

So when I learned about the Doona SensAlert, a Bluetooth device that sits in the car seat and will alert you if it senses your child remains in the car after you walk away, I wanted to try it. Unfortunately, I also learned that you probably shouldn't use it if you don't already have one of Doona's own car seats.

Calling Cushion

The SensAlert is easy to use: turn it on, set it up in the Doona app (which only takes a few steps; the longest part is adding emergency contacts), place it in your car seat, and you're good to go.

The SensAlert has a three-alarm system. If it senses that you've left your child in the car seat, you first get an urgent notification if your phone goes out of range—I estimated it to be around 10 feet. Two minutes after that, you get a phone call, and finally the SensAlert calls and sends SMS alerts to your emergency contacts. At each level, you can disable the alarm. At the first alarm, you use the app to disable it, but when it calls you, you press a button during the call to disable it.

It's designed to only react when your child is placed into the car seat on top of the device, but I found that for the first day or two it it wasn't calibrated yet. It thought my child was always on the car seat and pinged my phone every time I got near my car and then moved away from it. Luckily, I live in an apartment complex so I didn't get too close that often, but if your car is in a garage you might have a very annoying first day or two. But after day two, it started working seamlessly.

Once it was calibrated, I was impressed how well and consistently it worked to alert me, and accurately reacted to my son being in or out of his car seat. It does make beeping noises when your child is placed in the car. While the beeps aren't too loud, they did get my child's attention when I placed him in his car seat. 

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The Doona SensAlert is made for Doona's car seat, but Doona says it's designed to fit most car seats for children. I tested that claim right away and placed it in a Graco car seat, which worked completely fine. The Doona is designed with a large enough cutout for the center buckle to fit into most car seats.

Other Options

I spoke with Janette Fennell, the president and founder of Kids and Car Safety, about the Doona and other tech that's designed to help prevent hot car and car abandonment-related deaths. Her organization has tried to pass legislation for carmakers to include radar that can sense if someone is in the backseat (also known as occupant detection), but so far haven't had any luck.

A few models from Kia and Hyundai do have this feature, but the predominant feature in cars is door sequencing or an “end of trip” reminder. When you park your car, a light on the dashboard will remind you that you opened one of the rear doors earlier. But it's not as foolproof as occupant detection.

“It's not as effective,” said Fennell. “It's just an alert because you opened the backseat door." She explained that if you stop and get gas on your journey, and don't open the backseat again, the reminder won't go off, even though there's still someone in your backseat. It also confuses parents. “They think it will detect the presence of your child, and it doesn't,” she continued. 

By comparison, the Doona is an aftermarket accessory that parents can add themselves. But child passenger safety technicians, such as Michelle Pratt from Safe in the Seat, recommends against using products like these. “When it comes to accessories, if it didn’t come in the box with your seat or is not approved by your car seat’s manufacturer to use, then don’t use it,” she said. 

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Doona has crash-tested the SensAlert with its own car seat and other car seats from “leading brands” per an email from Doona's public relations team, but Pratt says to still skip it if you aren't using Doona's car seat. “Crash testing for aftermarket products is not federally regulated, nor are there any set standards to make or sell these products," she said. 

Fennell also cautioned me against another common mistake. A lot of parents try to solve this problem by throwing accessories into the back seat, whether that's by tucking their phone into the child's car seat or attaching mirrors or hanging reminders. Even though they're separate from the car seat itself, these are still dangerous if they shatter or fall in a crash. 

But if you're using the SensAlert with a Doona car seat, then you're in the clear. “This add-on is great for caregivers who already have or plan to purchase a Doona,” said Pratt. 

A Safer Solution

There's a different aftermarket solution besides Doona's cushion: certain car seats that have similar technology built into the car seat, and are therefore guaranteed to be crash-tested with the car seat in question. 

Cybex and Evenflo, for example, have car seats with SensorSafe built in, which uses the chest clip of a car seat to detect if a child is in the car. The SensorSafe app then alerts you if your child is left in the seat. It also checks the temperature of the car, if your child unbuckles themselves, and if they're seated for too long. We tested a car seat that included SensorSafe, and found it pinged us constantly—that's preferable to it not pinging you at all, though. 

The built-in aspect of the Cybex and Evenflo car seats is ideal from an aftermarket perspective. However, none of these car seats are cheap. Cybex's and Evenflo's seats both retail for anywhere between $380 to over $500, and Doona doesn't sell SensAlert as a bundle. You'd have to purchase the (admittedly excellent) $550 car seat and stroller combo and buy the $100 SensAlert separately.

For now, the Doona is out of my Graco car seat, and unless you're using Doona's seat, it shouldn't be in yours, either. But I haven't moved my mirror yet.

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