A car seat is essential for keeping your young kids safe when you’re on the road. So why can it feel like understanding the rules about them — what, when and how to use the seat — is harder than passing a driving test?
To get past your car seat safety anxieties, follow our pointers below and you’ll feel confident your little one is secure. It’s (almost) as simple as this: read the instructions.
Know Your Car; Know Your Car Seat
If you are trying to pick a new car seat, keep in mind that price does not necessarily correlate with safety. Keep it simple: The car seat that is safest for your family is the one that will fit your child’s size, that will fit well in your car, and that you can reliably install and use correctly every time you drive.
There are two main categories of car seat: rear facing for infants and toddlers, and forward facing for children who have outgrown a rear facing setup. Some car seats are designed to convert between the two.
Every car seat comes with a manual that will give you the specifics for that car seat, on everything from how to position and secure the seat to how to position and secure your child. The manual should be your best friend and car-seat confidant. Don’t use a car seat if you don’t have a manual to go with it. When you first unbox the seat, read the manual. When you have car-seat questions, check the manual first.
There’s another manual to read, too: Your car’s manual will have a section on car seats and the car’s Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children (LATCH) system. It’s worth reading to help you avoid mistakes and headaches when you are installing and securing the seat.
Making time to read through both manuals can go a long way to set your child up for a safe ride, every time — and to set your mind at ease.
Where the Rubber Meets the Road
Reading both the manuals may still leave you with some practical questions, especially around balancing comfort and safety. Some of the most common sources of anxiety — and errors — include:
Securing the seat: For the car seat itself, there should be no more than one inch of movement if you give it a good shake after installing it. No exceptions. Take time to sort out the best fit between your particular car and your particular car seat; for example, it may be more secure to use the seatbelt than your car’s LATCH anchors. For the tether at the top of the back seat, check your car manual to make sure you’re actually using the LATCH tether and not another accessory, such as a cargo hook.
Strapping in your child: For the car seat harness, the pinch test is best: if you can pinch the fabric of the harness, it should be tighter. You can find a quick and clear video to illustrate this at SafeKids.org. For small infants, rolled towels may be appropriate to pad your baby so that his head and legs are positioned safely when he’s harnessed in. Want to know for sure? Yep: Check your car seat manual.
Wardrobe woes: Your child’s cute winter coat or even a darling summer bunting can pose a car seat conundrum. Strapping her in when she’s wearing thick clothing might mean that the straps, while appearing to be tight, aren’t actually secure enough against her body to protect her in a crash. The safe way to navigate clothing is to dress your child in layers — set the tightness of the straps while your child is not wearing any thick layers, then take her out, put her coat back on, and then buckle her back in. Another option is to keep your child in thinner clothing while she’s in the car seat, and to put blankets over her to keep her warm for the ride.
Moving On Up
As your child grows, there are so many milestones to celebrate — but the milestone of moving from one car seat to the next is sometimes a source of more consternation than delight.
But the things that make your child precious and unique — those thick legs, long torso and ever-wiggling toes — may also mean that your child doesn’t seem to fit neatly into these height and weight guidelines. Your current car seat’s manual will include all fit guidelines, so (yes, that’s right) start there.
And if there’s one rule that could apply to all children, it is that keeping them in the most secure seat they’ll fit into is always a good idea.
Rear facing to forward facing: Rear-facing car seats are the safest way for your child to ride, so keep your little one in a rear-facing position as long as possible. Yes, even if those wiggling toes touch the back seat. But when your child truly outgrows the weight, height or fit limit for your current rear-facing seat, move on to a forward-facing seat.
Forward facing to booster: The forward-facing seat offers more security than a booster seat, so keep your kid in the car seat for as long as possible, up to the highest weight or height allowed in the manual. When it’s time to switch to a booster, choose one that works with your car’s back seat.
Booster to belt: No matter how many of your kid’s friends are out of the booster seat, safety must rule supreme. Your child can only ditch his booster when he is old enough (at least eight years old) and large enough for the seatbelt to fit correctly — shoulder belt across the middle of the chest and shoulder, lap belt low and snug across the upper thighs (not the belly). Your child also must be tall enough to sit against the car’s seat back with her knees bent over the edge of the seat without slouching, and able to stay comfortable in this position throughout the trip. When all these criteria are met, you can (finally) say bye-bye, booster.
Back seat to front seat: All children younger than 13 years old should ride in the back seat. The end.
The Heart of the Matter
Motor vehicle accidents are one of the leading causes of childhood death, and while correct car seat use can reduce that risk by nearly 70 percent, as many as half of car seats are not installed or used correctly.
Many frustrations and anxieties around the car seat arise from deep concern over keeping kids safe. So next time your jaw clenches as you wrestle with the harness or the LATCH, remember that your frustration comes from a place of love — that help is right there waiting for you. Probably in the manual.
Want Extra Help?
All parents can benefit from getting installation help from a Child Passenger Safety Technician (CPST) to make sure that their child’s seat is properly installed. And North Carolina has the largest CPST program in the country. If you have concerns or just want to be sure your child is secure, find a certified Child Passenger Safety Technician near you.