It’s hard enough being a parent when every other article out there tells you you’re doing it wrong, but a study by the American Academy of Pediatrics revealing that 93% of parents make critical errors in car seat installation is enough to make us all prick up our ears.
The unfortunate reality is that most of us are making car seat mistakes, and the only way to correct it is with honest, positive communication with one another. We’re all human, and we’ve all got a million things on our mind as we try to raise the best darn humans on the planet Earth, so it’s okay to learn something new and try things a different way.
We work too hard for our kids’ safety to be on the line, so these car seat safety tips are to ensure that on the road, our kids are safe as we can keep them (when they’re not climbing the kitchen cabinets).
#1 — Install the Seat TIGHTLY
The most commonly made car seat installation mistake is not installing the seat tightly enough.
Contrary to popular belief, you actually don’t want to put your full body weight in the seat for installation, but you do want to make sure that when you tug on the seat at the belt path with your non-dominant hand, it doesn’t move more than an inch.
For a more in-depth look at installing your car seat just right, check out this guide from Car Seats for the Littles.
#2 — Rear-facing is 500% Safer
Though individual recommendations for car seats will vary depending on the height and weight limits, it’s been proven that a child that is rear-facing is five times safer than one who is forward facing. The reason is because of the way the seat cradles the child in a crash, acting as a protective shell as the seat moves from the force of the impact.
Current recommendations are that children rear face until they’re at least two years old, though many suggest that longer is better. If your child is outgrowing the rear-facing limits of their current seat, try a brand like Clek, Diono, and Graco for models that allow for extended rear facing.
Note: The rear-facing study was recently discovered to have some flaws, and while it’s unclear as to whether these altered the results, further studies are now being called for to corroborate these findings. In the meantime, recommendations remain the same.
#3 — No Puffy Coats In the Car Seat
This is a tricky one, guys, I know.
In the winter months as we bundle our littles up, it can be really tempting to buckle them in with those marshmallow coats still on (hey, the walk from the car to the store is cold and LONG). The problem is, in the force of a collision all of those puffy layers compress, leaving the straps loose and your child at serious risk for ejection.
Don’t sweat it though — if you live in a climate where coats are a must (or your heat is busted), there are plenty of safe solutions that will allow you to keep your little warm in his car seat on blustery days.
The OneKid Road Coats are spendy, but super warm and 100% safe to use in the car seat. If the Road Coats aren’t within your budget, fleece jackets are thin enough to be safe in the car and very warm, and even some thin down jackets are passable.
For more creative ideas on keeping your kiddos warm and safe in their car seats this winter, check out this great article from Car Seats for the Littles, and learn how to test your child’s jacket for car seat readiness!
#4 — After-Market Accessories May Not Be Safe
We’ve all seen those hopelessly adorable strap covers that you can get, and oh yeah, we’ve swooned. But the tough reality is that these accessories were designed to be cute and comfy, and not necessarily safe, or compatible with your car seat’s design.
The best rule of thumb? Unless it was designed for your specific car seat by the manufacturer, it could interfere with the efficacy of your seat, and it’s probably best to leave car seat add ons off the registry.
#5 — Always Tether for Forward Facing
The tether at the top of your forward facing car seat is absolutely mandatory when your seat’s in this position. This often overlooked part of your car seat keeps your child from hitting the seat in front of them in the event of a crash, so be sure to use it.
#6 — Place the Chest Clip Properly
Chest clip position is one of the most commonly made errors, and putting it in the wrong spot could mean the straps not being in the ideal position to protect your child in a crash.
While there are a lot of myths surrounding chest clip use, it is true that a properly positioned chest clip keeps those straps where they need to be so they can be your baby safe and in their seat.
To position the chest clip properly, make sure it’s placed at armpit level and across their sternum — easy peasy.
#7 — Position Strap Height Correctly
As your child grows, it’s important to adjust the height of those shoulder straps (I know, you might as well wrestle an alligator). Always make sure that for rear facing children, the shoulder straps are at or below the line of their shoulders.
For forward facing children, the rules are just the opposite — make sure the straps are at or above the height of their shoulders.
#8 — Always Strap Them In (Even When They’re Not in the Car)
A surprising number of children every year are injured in their car seats while not even in vehicles. Using infant car seats as a mobile carrier is common enough, but not strapping a baby in or ensuring they’re seated at the proper angle can result in falls and kinked airways.
If you plan to use the car seat outside of the car, make sure baby is always within sight, and always strapped in.
#9 — The Center Seat Is Safest
If you have a center seat, install your car seat there. Studies show that children in car seats installed in the center seat of a vehicle are 43% safer than those on the sides!
#10 — Always Replace Seat After An Accident
It’s an absolute must for any seat, whether it was a fender bender or a rollover: every car seat must be replaced after a collision.
Talk to your car insurance provider if you’re worried about the expense — many policies cover the replacement of a car seat completely after a wreck!
#11 — Car Seats Expire
It’s not quite as noticeable as moldy cheese or stale graham crackers, but car seats do expire, and it’s important to dispose of and replace them when they do (look into Target’s recycling program to see if you can nab a 20% off coupon!).
Most car seats will have an actual expiration date directly on the manufacturer’s label, so do some investigating on the underside of yours to see if you can find it. If there’s only a manufacturing date (as is sometimes the case), consult the manual. In general, most car seats last six years from their manufacturing date.
Knowing Better, Doing Better, and Hanging in There
Car seat discussions get HEATED in the parenting community, and it’s kind of crazy when you think about it. I mean hey, we’re all just trying to keep our kids alive, right?
But a lot of times, new information collides in a culture that already holds parents to impossibly high standards, and it makes us understandably defensive.
Car seat installation can feel a little like assembling IKEA furniture sometimes, and it’s okay if a few (or a lot) of things on this list are new information to you! When in doubt, talk to a certified car seat technician and have them take a look at your installation.
Parenting is tough, but the more we know, the better we can do our jobs. Take it all in stride mama, and keep on keepin’ on — you’re doing an amazing job.