Nearly half of all car seats are installed or used incorrectly.
A recent study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) revealed that nearly half of all car seats are either installed or used incorrectly. The most common mistakes include:
- An incorrect recline angle on a rear-facing car seat
- Not tightly securing a forward-facing car seat
- Not using a tether anchor on a forward-facing convertible car seat
- The lap belt sitting on a child’s abdomen (instead of upper thighs) in a booster seat
Below is a list of safety tips for car seats to help you minimize the risk of injury to your child in the event of a crash.
Choosing the right car seat
When choosing a car seat, be sure to select one that is appropriate for your child’s age, height, and weight. Check your car seat manual periodically to be sure your child has not outgrown his seat.
Don’t use a second-hand seat
While baby gear can be expensive, this is not a place you want to save money by using a secondhand seat. Car seats expire after six years (the expiration date is printed on the car seat) and consider the following:
- a used car seat may be subject to a recall
- parts may be missing, rendering it unsafe in an accident
- it may have already been involved in an accident, making it less structurally sound
- it may be missing a user manual with critical information.
There are many reasonably priced car seats available today. Pick the one that is the right fit for you baby and fits your pocket as well.
Different types of car seats
Many parents choose to use an infant car seat for their newborn. These seats are very convenient because you can use the car seat as a carrier and attach it to your stroller as well. These car seats are designed to be rear-facing only and your child will outgrow the infant seat around 8 or 9 months of age. At that point, you will want to buy either:
- a convertible seat – these are designed to be used rear-facing or forward-facing, depending upon your child’s height and weight. They are economical since they may continue to be used once your child is big enough to be forward-facing.
- an all-in-one seat – while these seats may also be used rear-facing or forward-facing, they also have the additional feature of converting to a booster seat.
- a booster seat – used for children who have not yet grown enough to utilize a standard seat and seatbelt in your car.
Safety tips for installing your child’s car seat
Have a professional check the installation
Installing a car seat or car seat base (for infant seats) can be challenging the first time around. It can be helpful to have a professional check to be sure you’ve installed it correctly after you have secured it in the car.
Many hospitals offer this service for new parents. Another option is to check online and see if your local fire or police department offers this service. We have utilized both of these services – at the hospital for our infant seat bases and at our fire department when we moved our children into convertible seats. You can also use this handy search tool to find a certified car seat inspector near you.
Once you have your seat checked, you’ll know how to install your car seat correctly in the future and have the added comfort that your child is secured safely. Also remember the following safety tips for car seats:
Tips for using the LATCH system
Be sure you connect the anchors of the base to the correct points in your car. The LATCH bars are located in the crack of your back seat and look like little ‘U’ bars. You can find them by looking for the small, round plastic indicators on the seat, just above the crack.
The safest position for your child’s car seat is the center of the back seat. However, most cars only have 2 sets of LATCH bars on the left and right side seats. In that case, you’ll need to use the seat belt to place the car seat base in the center of the back seat.
Tighten the straps!
Don’t forget to tighten the straps once you’ve secured the anchors of the car seat to the LATCH bars. I’ve found this to be the best approach:
- get into the back seat
- face backward and put one knee on top of the infant seat base or car seat
- pull on each strap with one hand while pressing down with your knee and one hand on the car seat with as much force and weight as you can.
The base or car seat should not move more than 1 inch in any direction when you pull on it. Similarly, if you are using a seat belt, follow the same approach, pulling the seat belt tight as you lean on the base or seat.
Use the tether anchor, if one is provided.
Check your vehicle’s user manual to identify where the tether anchor points are located in your vehicle.
Don’t install a car seat or base in the front seat.
This could be dangerous in case of an accident if you have a passenger-side airbag. Even when your child is no longer using a booster seat, it is advisable to keep her in the back seat until she is 13 years of age to avoid injuries from the airbag deploying.
Tips for securing your child safely in his car seat
Installing your car seat correctly is only half the battle. In order to ensure your child’s safety, follow these safety tips for car seats when securing your child:
Don’t use the infant insert for too long.
Stop using the infant insert provided with your infant car seat once your newborn reaches the maximum allowable weight.
Avoid aftermarket accessories.
Do not use any aftermarket accessories with your child’s car seat. Items like strap covers and travel pillows may cause injury in an accident.
Don’t turn your child to the forward-facing position too soon.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends keeping your child in a rear-facing position until 2 years of age, or he reaches the maximum height and/or weight limits for rear-facing in a seat. Since children have large heads and weak neck muscles, a crash in a forward-facing car seat can cause spinal injuries. The longer you can keep your child rear-facing, the safer he is.
Exercise care with the straps and the clip.
- Make sure the car seat harness straps aren’t twisted and that you cannot pinch the fabric of the harness strap. Your car seat should have a strap tightener located at the bottom of the seat to ensure a snug fit.
- Be sure to position the clip that holds the two straps together at your child’s armpit height. This is important because if it’s too low, your child could be ejected from the car seat in an accident.
Don’t overdress your child.
- Putting your child into the car seat wearing bulky clothing or a winter coat prevents you from making the harness straps snug on your child. This means your child may come loose from the seat in an accident. On cold days, we strap our kids into their car seats and put a blanket over them to keep warm. Don’t do this with an infant as it may pose a suffocation hazard.
- Visit the American Academy of Pediatrics website for more safety tips for car seats.
- Have a certified car seat inspector check your car seat once you’ve installed it.
- Periodically check for car seat recalls, especially if you use a secondhand car seat (which isn’t advisable!)
- Know the safety-seat laws for your state.