The Comprehensive Guide to Car Seat Safety Part II (Car Seat Installation)

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See also Part I of this series: Car Seat Selection and Direction

Car Seat Installation

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.

Location

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.

Angle

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.

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Adjustable Recline Options (photo credit: NHTSA)

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.

 Angle Indicator (photo credit: NHTSA)
Angle Indicator (photo credit: NHTSA)

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.

Use of pool noodles to attain proper angle for a rear facing seat (photo credit: Car Seats for the Littles)
Use of pool noodles to attain proper angle for a rear facing seat (photo credit: Car Seats for the Littles)

Routing

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.

Two separate belt paths on a convertible car seat (photo credit: http://facebook.com/TheCarSeatNerd)
Two separate belt paths on a convertible car seat (photo credit: The Car Seat Nerd)
Forward Facing Belt Path on a convertible seat (photo credit: NHTSA)
Forward Facing Belt Path on a convertible seat (photo credit: NHTSA)
Rear Facing Belt Path on a convertible seat (photo credit: NHTSA)
Rear Facing Belt Path on a convertible seat (photo credit: NHTSA)

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.

A label indicating the LATCH Anchor (photo credit: NHTSA)
A label indicating the LATCH Anchor (photo credit: NHTSA)
Some anchors are inside the seat “bight” (photo credit: NHTSA)
Some anchors are inside the seat “bight” (photo credit: NHTSA)

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.

An infant seat base with LATCH J-hooks (photo credit: NHTSA)
An infant seat base with LATCH hooks (photo credit: NHTSA)
LATCH hook (photo credit: NHTSA)
LATCH hook (photo credit: NHTSA)
 J-Hook style LATCH hook (photo credit: NHTSA)
J-Hook style LATCH hook (photo credit: NHTSA)

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 top tether anchor (covered) (photo credit: NHTSA)
A top tether anchor (covered) (photo credit: NHTSA)
A top tether anchor found in back of a captain chair in a mini-van photo credit: NHTSA)
A top tether anchor found in back of a captain chair in a mini-van (photo credit: NHTSA)
Securing a top tether anchor in a sedan (photo credit: NHTSA)
Securing a top tether anchor in a sedan (photo credit: NHTSA)

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.

Head Excursion with and without utilizing the top tether (photo credit: University of Michigan)
Head Excursion with and without utilizing the top tether (photo credit: University of Michigan)

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).

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Author: Saara Moskowitz

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.