Saara Moskowitz is a Child Passenger Safety Technician (CPST) certified by Safe Kids Worldwide. She lives in New England with husband and daughter. You can contact her with any questions at SaaraCPST@gmail.com.
Bulky items (this includes winter coats, buntings, and liners like the BundleMe) are not allowed to be used with a car seat because the harness will be too loose to protect a child in the event of a crash. Even when tightened over these bulky items, in the event of a crash the material will compress leaving a large gap between the child and the harness. A child could be ejected from the car seat if the harness is not snug enough.
Some alternate options for keeping kids warm in the winter are:
-“Shower cap” style car seat covers that go OVER an infant seat, and not between the baby and back of the seat. You can also layer some blankets on top of the baby (once harnessed) before zipping up the car seat “shower cap” cover.
-Fleece Ponchos that go over the harness system, and do not come between the child and car seat.
-Buckle your child in, and then put his coat on backward (or use a Snuggie) on top of the harness straps.
-Fleece jackets that fit snugly and do not compress.
Another item prohibited by car seat manufactures are “aftermarket products” which includes anything that does not come with the car seat and is not specified as allowed in the car seat’s manual. Some examples of aftermarket products include infant head or body positioners, strap (or seat) covers, protection mats that go under car seats, seat belt tighteners, buntings, etc. These items are sold at retailers nationwide but they are not regulated or tested with the car seats.
The aftermarket items can interfere with the car seat’s installation, harnessing, and protection of your child. Many manufacturers will void the seat’s warranty if aftermarket products are used. Nothing extra should ever go between the car seat and vehicle seat, the baby and the car seat, or the baby and the harness.
This photo shows the aftermarket body support removed, but the harness on the same tightness setting as when the body support was in the seat. You can see how much space is actually between the baby and her harness. In the event of a crash, the body support would compress and the baby would not be protected.
One common concern is a newborn’s head flopping to the side in her car seat. If your car seat does not come with an infant insert, do not purchase an aftermarket product. An easy solution is to roll up some receiving blankets and place them on the side of the baby’s head, like so:
Nothing should ever be clipped onto the car seat harness, this includes pacifier clips, toys, and devices meant to prevent a child from opening the chest clip. These items were not crash-tested with the car seat and can prevent the harness from fitting snugly, and the plastic or metal clips can cause further injury in the event of a crash.
Items such as toys, mirrors, and window shades can come loose in a crash, becoming projectiles which can seriously injure passengers. This also includes large handbags, water bottles, etc. If it’s not something you would want thrown at your head, secure it, or keep it in the trunk. In the event of a crash, these items will actually be significantly heavier than they are in a regular environment.
REGISTER YOUR PRODUCT
Every car seat comes with a postage paid postcard (or website address) to use for registering your seat. Completing the product registration is an important step because it allows the manufacturer to contact you directly if there is ever a recall on a product you own. If you have lost the registration card you can visit the manufacturer’s website and locate the registration page to register your product.
Never leave your child alone in the car, even for a minute. The temperature inside a car can rise drastically in moments, leading to heatstroke and death. There are many apps (including Kars4Kids‘ brand new app) and devices available to help prevent children from being left in the car, but never attach any extra devices to the child’s car seat.
Be extra cautious when you have a change in routine. When a caregiver is not used to dropping off her child at day care before going to work, mistakes can happen. Try to keep a personal item (keys, wallet, purse, phone) safely secured in the back seat. This will quickly become routine, and every time you arrive at your destination you will be accessing the back seat for your personal item, and will quickly see if you have any children in the car that day.
You are a role model for your children. Children with parents who wear their seat belts every time they drive are much more likely to buckle up as teenagers.
Once the car seat is installed, you will want to secure your child properly using the harness system. In the United States we use “5 Point Harness” systems. This is comprised of a buckle, a chest clip, and the harness (webbing) which contacts the five strongest parts of the body to spread the force of a crash evenly over the child: across the hips (points 1 & 2), over each shoulder (points 3 & 4), and between the legs (point 5).
Properly position the harness on your child.
Rear-facing seats – Harness straps should lie flat, not twisted, and be routed through the slotthat is at or below your child’s shoulders.
Forward-facing seats – Harness straps should lie flat, not twisted, and be placed through theslot that is at or above your child’s shoulders.
A twisted harness will not distribute weight correctly in a crash and could cause injury. Make sure the harness straps are routed through the correct slot in both the car seat cover and car seat shell, especially after removing the cover for any reason. Often, the harness will accidentally be routed through one slot in the cover but not the corresponding slot in the shell.
Buckle the harness and close the chest clip. Tighten the harness straps and move the chest clip up so the top of the clip lines up at armpit level.
Check to see that the harness is snug by administering the “pinch test”. You should not be able to pinch a horizontal fold in the harness webbing at the child’s collar bone.
You want to make sure nothing comes between your child and the car seat, or the harness straps. This includes BundleMes, buntings, bulky coats, and swaddle blankets. In the next article we will discuss some solutions for winter time. This is a very informative video by Dr. Alisa Baer (“The Car Seat Lady”) on what every parent should know before buckling his or her new baby into a car seat:
Common Harness Errors
Harness too loose or bulky Items under harness
Chest clip not at armpit level
Buckle unbuckled (but chest clip is closed)
Chest clip not closed (but bottom buckle is buckled)
Harness routed through incorrect slots, or routed through two different slots
Harness and seat belt both used to secure the child (this can sometimes be found on a forward facing child in a car seat installed using LATCH or not installed at all)
Tomorrow, Part IV of this series: The Comprehensive Guide to Car Seat Safety Part IV (Harnessing).
Now that you know which car seat is appropriate for your child, it’s time to install the car seat. If a car seat is not installed correctly, your child’s safety could be in danger.
Different car seats have various installation methods, and combined with the various restrictions and recommendations of each vehicle you are using, it is impossible to cover all possibilities in a single article. This is just a very brief overview of some installation tips and common situations you might encounter when installing your child’s car seat.
Be sure to check both the manual for your vehicle and the manual for your car seat to make sure you are installing the car seat correctly and safely. Don’t hesitate to call a Certified Passenger Safety Technician for assistance.
Children under 13 should always sit in the back seat. Car seats should almost never be placed in the front seat of a vehicle because airbag deployment can cause additional injury to a child in a crash.
Without going into too many specifics here, there are a few situations which may require a child sitting in the front seat, such as in the case of a pickup truck without a 2nd passenger row. In those circumstances the vehicle manual’s child restraint section must be consulted for additional information. Most of these vehicles have a manual off switch for the airbags (using the key to the vehicle and not an automatic sensor). It is highly recommended that you contact a Certified Child Passenger Safety Technician for additional assistance if you encounter a situation in which the child must sit in the front seat.
Car seats have a specific recline angle, or range of angles, which must be followed when installed. Most car seats have built in angle indicators that help with this step. Some car seats even have adjustable recline positions.
Sometimes the indicator will be a straight line on the side of the seat with arrows to be lined up parallel with the ground, or it might have a ball or bubble indicator with a specific range indicated for the proper angle. You should install the car seat when the vehicle is parked on a level surface so you can be sure the angle indicator is accurate.
On a rear-facing-only infant seat, the base will have multiple levels to choose from when installing the seat. For a newborn, you want to make sure the car seat reclines as far back as the manual allows.
In some cases getting a proper recline angle on a rear-facing seat might seem impossible. Some seats and vehicles will allow (and require) the use of a “pool noodle” or firmly rolled towel at the seat bight. A CPST can help you get a proper install using a pool noodle, if necessary.
A convertible car seat (or 3-in-1) will have 2 different belt paths, one for forward facing installs (typically runs behind the child’s back) and one for rear facing installs (typically runs under the child’s legs). These paths will be marked on the seat itself, as well as in the car seat manual. Make sure to use the correct belt-path for installation.
A car seat should be secured with either the vehicle’s seat belt or with the LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) system, but not both at the same time. Because every car seat and vehicle is different, it’s important to follow all instructions carefully. (Note: the Clek Foonf and Nuna Pipa seats do allow use of the LATCH and Seat Belt at the same time – this will be stated in their manuals.)
If you choose to use a seat belt to install your car seat, make sure to review your vehicle’s manual to find out how to “lock” your seatbelt. There are a few different possibilities and instead of going through all of them here, I encourage you to read your manual, or visit a Child Passenger Safety Technician for assistance. Your car seat may also have a built-in “lock off” that must be engaged when using a seatbelt install, this is information that you will find in your car seat’s manual.
If you are using LATCH, make sure to check your vehicle manual for the LATCH anchor locations. Vehicles manufactured prior to 2003 were not required to have Lower Anchors, so they may not be present. Vehicles manufactured starting in 2003 are required to have 2 sets of LATCH anchors (1 in each of the outboard rear seating positions), though some vehicles may have more. LATCH locations will be clearly marked in the vehicle’s manual, as well as indicated on the seat of the car with labels or buttons.
NOTE: Many cars do not have LATCH in the center seating position and most vehicles and car seat manufacturer do not permit you to install a car seat in the center using the two inner LATCH anchors from the side seating positions. This is referred to as “LATCH Borrowing.” Check your vehicle and child restraint manuals. If nothing is specifically mentioned in the manual permitting this type of installation, don’t do it.
Some LATCH clips look like a rectangular piece of plastic with “teeth” to grab the anchors, and a button on top to release the “teeth.” Another type of LATCH clips are “J” shaped hooks.
If you have a J-Hook latch, the “opening” of the hook should be facing down, as shown in the images above. If your LATCH hooks have a button, that button should be facing up.
Route the seatbelt (or LATCH strap) through the correct belt path, and make sure there are no twists in the strap. At this point you want to check the angle indicator to make sure you’re securing the seat at the proper angle.
Following the instructions in your car seat manual, remove the slack (excess webbing) from the seatbelt (or LATCH strap) while applying pressure to the car seat. You may need to apply your body weight to the seat by placing a knee in the seat while you remove the excess seatbelt slack.
When you have removed as much slack as possible, push and pull the car seat at the belt path, using the pressure of a firm handshake. The seat should not move more than 1″ side-to-side at the belt path or front-to-back. It is normal for the car seat to have movement at the opposite end of the seat (the side closer to the front row of the car.)
A forward facing seat will have a top tether strap to be secured on an anchor point in your car. Consult your vehicle’s manual to find the tether anchor locations. Most of the tether anchors will be marked with an image of a car seat or an anchor. Be sure you’re not trying to use a cargo hook or other accessory in place of a tether anchor.
A tether strap limits forward head movement (“excursion”) in a crash. Some rear-facing seats will also have a tether that can be used, consult the car seat’s manual to see if this applies to your seat.
The LATCH weight limits were revised in 2014 and most car seats have a combined weight limit of 65 lbs (weight of the car seat + weight of the child). The topic is lengthy and varies by car seat/vehicle. For more information, please refer to Car Seats for the Little’s informative page on LATCH changes, or feel free to contact me (or another certified technician) for more information. Seats manufactured after February 27th 2014 will have a label on the LATCH system stating the child’s weight limit for using LATCH.
COMMON INSTALLATION ERRORS:
Seat belt retractor not locked (when car seat is installed using the seat belt)
More than 1″ of movement when pushed or pulled at the belt path.
Incorrect belt path used on convertible seat install.
Seat belt is twisted in belt path.
Incorrect recline angle.
“Bracing” a car seat against the front driver or passenger seat, this is not allowed by most car seats and vehicles, but check your manuals to be sure.
LATCH Borrowing when not allowed.
Using LATCH and a seat belt together.
Upside down LATCH hooks
Not using the top tether anchor when forward facing the car seat
Securing the forward facing top tether to a cargo hook or other non-anchor object.
Using the LATCH system beyond the stated weight limit.
Boosters: Incorrect seat belt routing – make sure to read and follow the instructions for how to route the seat belt correctly over your child. Many boosters have arm rests that need the lap belt routed under them instead of over.
If this chapter has taught you anything, I hope it’s that you should always consult your car seat manual in addition to your vehicle manual to obtain a safe install.
If you have any questions about your installation, contact a CPST to assist you. To find a CPST in your area, visit Safe Kids or find your local Safe Kids coalition to find a seat check event near you.
Tomorrow, Part III of this series: The Comprehensive Guide to Car Seat Safety Part III (Harnessing).
Did you know that 9 out of 10 car seats are not installed properly? It’s no wonder car accidents are the leading cause of preventable deaths for children (ages 1-13).
My job as a certified Child Passenger Safety Technician (CPST) is to educate caregivers on proper car seat use and installation. It’s not my job to just install a seat for a parent, but to teach a parent how to properly and confidently install a seat on their own. Over the next few articles we will go through the steps to ensure that your children are the safest they can be in the car.
There are 4 stages of restraint usage: rear-facing seats, forward-facing seats, belt positioning boosters, and seat belts. The type of seat you need will depend on your child’s age and size.
The five different types of seats to accommodate these stages are:
Infant-Only Seat (Rear-Facing only): Designed for newborns and small babies, the Infant-Only seat is a small, portable seat with a carry handle that can only be used in a rear-facing position.
Convertible Seat: As a child grows, this seat can change from a rear-facing to a forward-facing seat with a harness. Because it can be used with children of various sizes, it allows for children to stay in a rear-facing position longer. Some convertible seats on the market today can even fit a newborn.
A Booster seat positions the seat belt so that it fits properly over the strongest parts of a child’s body. This can help reduce injury during a crash. Boosters can be a “high back booster” which looks like a car seat without a harness, or a “no back booster” which does not go behind the child’s back.
Seats with more than 2 functions:
Combination Seat: Only works as a forward facing harnessed seat and then as a booster seat when the child reaches the maximum limits of the harness.
All-in-One Seat: This seat can typically change from a rear-facing seat to a forward-facing seat to a booster seat as a child grows. This type of seat is called by other names, including 3-in-1, so you should carefully read the manufacturer’s description of which phases of a child’s growth that the seat will fit. Sometimes a seat called “3-in-1” is only for forward facing and then the 2 different types of boosters, so make sure to read the labeling.
What To Look For When Buying a Car Seat
All car seats and boosters have height and weight ranges (minimum weight, and maximum weight/height) that vary by seat. These limits are printed on stickers on the side of the seat, as well as listed in the car seat’s manual.
Always make sure to check these limits and be aware of your child’s height and weight to make sure s/he is within those limits.
If a child exceeds one of the limits before the other, the seat has been outgrown. A seat with more than one function (convertible and combination seats) will have separate limits for each mode.
Not all car seats will fit well in every vehicle. Retailers should allow you to test out floor models of various car seats in your car, with an employee present.
With all of the different brands and seats available, you probably want to know which one is the safest. The safest car seat for your child is one that is properly fitted to your child and vehicle, and that you will be able to install and use correctly every single time.
You also want to make sure that the car seat you are using is not expired, recalled, or has an otherwise unknown history (for example, a seat purchased used at a garage sale or consignment shop.)
Car seats are made mostly of plastic, which degrades and becomes brittle over time. Because of this, along with ongoing advances in safety research and technology, car seats have an expiration date. Most brands have a 6-7 year lifespan from the time of manufacture. The labels on the seat will contain a date of manufacture, and many seats will have a date of expiration stamped into the bottom of the plastic shell or a message similar to “do not use this child restraint 7 years after the date of manufacture.” If no expiration dates are found on the seat, check your car seat’s manual for this information.
Car seats are “one time use” items. Most car seat manufacturers say to replace the seat after ANY crash, even if you cannot see any visible damage. Check your seat’s manual to see what the manufacturer’s policy is, or give them a call.
Buying a used seat from a stranger or a consignment shop, or renting a seat can put your child at risk because you don’t know if the seat has been maintained according to the manufacturer’s instruction, if it has ever been in a crash, checked on an airplane, recalled, etc. Don’t put your child in a used car seat unless you know the seat’s full history and trust the previous user’s answers with your child’s life.
Selection and Direction
Stage 1: Rear Facing Car Seat
Birth-4 years (or until max limits of seat):
Types of seats to use: Infant seat, convertible seat in rear-facing position, or all-in-one seat in rear-facing position
“All infants and toddlers should ride in a rear-facing car safety seat (CSS) until they are 2 years of age or until they reach the highest weight or height allowed by the manufacturer of their CSS.”
Ideally, a child should remain rear facing until 4 years old.
Why? A toddler’s body is still forming as he grows. The bones have not fully ossified, and cartilage is connecting a toddler’s vertebrae rather than ossified bone. To get technical, those cartilage connections are called synchondroses, which slowly close over time. There are three major points of ossification, each with two synchondroses.
The above image shows the cervical (top), thoracic (middle), and lumbar (bottom) vertebrae of a one year old (left, each photo) and six year old (right, each photo). Note the easily visible synchondroses in each.
Another item to consider is how much weight a toddler’s spine is supporting. An average nine month old child’s head makes up 25% of his body weight; while an adult’s head only makes up 6% of its body weight. This difference in proportion only adds to the need to protect the spinal column.
During a crash, occupants travel towards the point of impact, putting all the stress on the neck and spine. At that moment there are actually three impacts: the vehicle striking whatever it strikes, the body of the occupant being retained by the seat belt or harness, and then the internal organs striking the front of the inside of the body. In a crash, a rear-facing car seat cradles and moves with your child, combining impacts number 2 and 3. This helps reduce stress to his fragile neck and spinal cord.
Rear facing is not a matter of parenting style or opinion, it a choice based on scientific fact. The more we know about crashes, the better we can protect our kids from injury in a crash. Many of the convertible car seats on the market today have higherweight and height limits, allowing them to be used in a rear facing position until age 3 or 4.
Stage 2: Forward-Facing Car Seat
Approximately 4-7 years old
Types of seats to use: Convertible seat in forward-facing position, combination seat with harness, or all-in-one seat in forward-facing position.
During a crash, the harness makes contact with the strongest parts of the child’s body to distribute the crash forces and to keep the child in the seat. The top tether limits the child’s forward head movement (excursion). Once your child reaches the limit of the forward facing seat (or the harness on a combination seat) it is time to move to a booster seat.
Does your child exceed the car seat’s height or weight limits?
Are his shoulders above the car seat’s top harness slots?
Are the tops of his ears above the top of the car seat?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, your child has probably outgrown his harnessed seat and it’s time for a booster.
Stage 3: Belt-positioning booster seat
Approximately Ages 6-12 years old
Types of seats to use: Combination seat in booster mode, all-in-one seat in booster mode, or booster.
A booster seat helps position an adult lap-and-shoulder belt properly on a child. For a seat belt to fit properly the lap belt must lie snugly across the upper thighs, not the stomach. The shoulder belt should lie snug across the shoulder and chest and not cross the neck or face.
Booster seats are not tightly installed in the vehicle the way car seats are. Booster seats are held in place by the child’s weight and vehicle’s lap-and-shoulder belts.These seats boost children up to ensure correct seat belt fit. Even if the child is not present, booster seats should be secured in the vehicle at all times. When not buckled, the booster seat can be tossed around the vehicle causing injury to vehicle occupants during a crash or sudden stop.
Stage 4: Seat belt
Approximately 13+ years old
There is a five step test to check if your child is ready to graduate from a booster seat to an adult seat belt. If any one of these conditions is not met, he needs to continue using a booster.
He is tall enough to sit in the seat without slouching
He can keep his back against the vehicle seat
He can keep his knees naturally bent over the edge of the vehicle seat
He can keep his feet flat on the vehicle floor.
The lap belt must lie snugly across his upper thighs, not the stomach. The shoulder belt should lie snugly across his shoulder and chest, not across his neck or face, and should never be pulled behind him.
Every vehicle is different, and a child might pass these 5 steps in one car, but not another. Make sure to do the 5 step test in every car your child will be riding in. Children under 13 should always be in the back seat.
Never use a lap-only belt on any passenger in the car, they do not provide adequate protection in the event of a crash. A lap-only belt is great for installing a car seat, but not for restraining a person.
Common seat selection and use errors:
The child is not within the height/weight limits of the seat selected, or is moved to the next stage before appropriate.
Using a seat with an unknown history, seat that is expired, has been recalled or has been in a crash
Improperly cleaning a car seat – always consult your manual. Most seats have removable covers that are hand or machine washable with gentle soap, but harness/LATCH/tether straps should NEVER be submerged in water (like a washing machine) or washed with harsh cleaners. This can stretch them or otherwise weaken the fibers. Your manual will have specific instructions on cleaning your seat’s straps. Replacement straps and covers are usually available from the manufacturer in the event that they are beyond cleaning. Make sure to follow the manual for instructions on reassembling the seat covers after washing.
Using a car seat for a function it does not perform – make sure you follow the instructions for your seat. Infant seats should NEVER be installed forward facing, and convertible seats without a booster function not be used as a booster.