Here is a sobering truth: every day we lose 4 to 5 children in car crashes. They are the leading cause of death for kids in this country and yet most of us are completely untrained in the best way to keep our kids safe from them: by properly installing a car seat.
“Across the country we find a greater than 95% misuse of car seats,” says Alisa Baer, M.D., a pediatrician and nationally certified child passenger safety instructor (who’s also known as The Car Seat Lady). But, don’t beat yourself up. What looks like just another piece of shiny, plastic baby gear is actually a sophisticated and complicated piece of safety engineering, and sometimes it takes an engineering degree to use it properly. So we spoke with three car seat safety professionals to find out what we’re doing wrong and how to do it right.
Mistake #1: Picking the wrong seat for your child's age, height or weight
“A lot parents try their best, and still can’t figure this out,” says Lorrie Walker, training manager and technical advisor for Safe Kids Worldwide. “Others may be thinking they can stretch an infant seat until they need a booster and save a little money.” But while there is no link between the cost of the car seat and its effectiveness, take the time you need to make sure you have the right seat for your child.
1. Research seats to find one that fits your child’s age, weight and height.
2. Check the manual and measure your child’s growth periodically so you know when it’s time to move on.
3. Follow the new American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines on how long to keep your child rear-facing.
4. Never buy a used seat. There’s no way to know for sure if it has been in an accident, and even seats that have been in the family may be missing parts, or expired. Car seats generally have expiration dates six years after manufacturing.
Mistake #2: Not installing your car seat correctly
Car seat safety professionals will tell you they see a lot of car seats installed incorrectly, and very few done right. The fact is, “the overwhelming majority of car seats are mis-intalled,” says Ben Hoffman, M.D., an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, and a certified child passenger safety technician and instructor. That means most of us are driving around town with seats that could be more dangerous than not using one at all.
The most common mistakes Hoffman, Baer, and Walker see are:
1. Routing seatbelts incorrectly
2. Not putting seatbelts in lock mode
3. Using both the lower anchors of the LATCH system and the seatbelt
4. Connecting the lower anchors and tethers of the LATCH system to the wrong points in the car, especially cargo hooks
5. Forgetting to use the tether at all
6. Not putting enough weight on the seat as it is being installed
1. Read BOTH your car seat’s manual and your car’s manual.
2. Decide whether you will use the lower anchors OR a seat belt, and follow the directions for only that method. (The lower anchors are part of the LATCH system, which stands for lower anchors and tethers for children). Once you’ve connected the lower anchor straps, pull the belt tail tightly from the top of the car seat, not the side.
3. If you are using seatbelts, figure out if yours are self-locking (they are required to be in any car made since 1997) and, if they are not, very carefully read how to use either the metal locking clip that came with your seat or the seat belt lock-off (if there is one) built into the car seat.
4. If you are using the lower anchors, make sure you are using the proper anchors for the seat position you have chosen in the car (your car manual will tell you which ones). Many people think their vehicle has lower anchors for the center seat, but most cars don’t. Parents often mistake anchor on the side seats for ones that belong in the center. Make sure to tighten the straps once the clips are locked into place.
5. Know that installing a car seat will take a bit of brute force, so try to put as much of your weight as possible on the seat as you install it. For rear-facing convertibles, try leaning your stomach on the back of the seat; for forward-facing, put both of your knees on the seat and then secure it. With your weight on the seat, wiggle the seat down into the cushion. Many installations are easier when done with two people.
Mistake #3: Not getting professional help
Sure, you set up the crib just fine, you put together the bouncy seat, why should the car seat be any different? Well, here’s a hypothetical: would you wire your own house for electricity if you were not a trained electrician? If the answer is no, you should think twice about assuming you can correctly install a car seat. A car seat, even if it’s covered in pastel teddy bears, is a serious piece of safety equipment. Just like your car, it has been carefully engineered, based on complex physics and high-speed tests, to keep your child safe in an accident. But if this high-level piece of safety equipment is improperly installed, all of that work goes right out the window.
“There is no reason that any parent should be confident enough in their car seat installation to take a risk on their child’s life,” says Dr. Baer. There’s even less reason to not do it when there are certified technicians all over the country who are easy to find and relatively inexpensive to consult. (Note: Dr. Baer only recommends going to your local police or fire stations, as many parenting books suggest, if they are listed as checkpoints. Go to seatcheck.org to find out.)
Set aside your pride, find the nearest certified technician, and drive your newly-installed seat to them (or bring your seat in its box and have them teach you). Even if they only tweak your installation a little—the average installation has three errors—you can walk away with valuable piece of mind. If they do a complete overhaul on your install job, you will be so grateful they did.
Mistake #4: Fitting the harness incorrectly
Think of your child’s car seat as a parachute that slows her fall and cushions her landing in a crash. If you were to jump from a third-story window (which is the equivalent impact of a 30-mile-an-hour crash) a parachute that is snugly attached to your body will bring you to a stop that is as slow and gentle as possible. The same applies to a harness, which should fit very snugly to your child’s body, but rarely does, because most parents worry about their child’s comfort when they snap them in. “Your parenting instinct tells you it will be better loose,” says Dr. Baer. But making it snug is a much safer choice, and not uncomfortable.
1. The harness should be snug enough “that you can only fit one finger between your child’s collarbone and the harness strap,” says Emily Levine, a nationally certified child passenger safety technician and one of the Car Seat Ladies.
2. The chest clip should be even with the armpits.
3. Children should not be wearing bulky clothes like jackets when they ride in their seat.
4. Do not use any accessories that are not certified for use in car seats, like bundlers, car seat covers that did not come with the seat or head positioners. “The only thing you should add to a car seat is a child,” says Levine.
Mistake #5: Facing your child forward too soon
“What I see most often as a car seat technician is that people definitely turn their kids around prematurely,” says Dr. Hoffman. “I think it’s because in this culture, we are so focused on milestones for young children and the idea that moving from one step to the next is a positive thing. But with child safety, it just is not.” In fact, says Dr. Baer, “rear-facing is 5 times safer for two-year-olds.”
Follow the newly-issued guidelines by the American Academy of Pediatrics that advise parents to keep their toddlers in rear-facing car seats until age 2 or until they exceed the height or weight limit for their car seat, which is typically 20 pounds for an infant seat, and 35 to 40 pounds for a convertible seat. If you started with an infant seat, this may mean transitioning to a convertible seat that can be rear-facing once your child outgrows the infant seat. Levine notes that even if your child’s legs are touching the back seat of the car, or even bending so they’ll fit, it’s not unsafe and not a reason to turn your child around too soon.
Mistake #6: Not using the tether
You know that long strap that always gets stuck in car doors and under your feet when you’re moving your car seat around? That annoying guy is a lifesaver. Intended to be attached to anchors that usually sit behind the headrests (almost all tethers are only used with forward-facing car seats), the tether keeps your little ones head safely within the confines of the seat, yet only 42% of parents use it.
“Using the tether decreases how far the child heads moves forward by four to eight inches with a properly installed car seat,” says Dr. Baer. “That doesn’t sound like much, but it could keep your child’s head from hitting the back of the front seat, the door frame or window in a crash and that’s the key to decreasing your child’s chance of having a brain or spinal cord injury.” With an improperly installed seat, the benefit of the tether is even greater, says Dr. Baer.
All forward-facing car seats (and a few rear-facing too—check your manual) should be tethered to the proper anchor for the car seat’s position in the car. Once again, get out your car seat and car’s manual, and install the tether according to both sets of directions.
All content on this Web site, including medical opinion and any other health-related information, is for informational purposes only and should not be considered to be a specific diagnosis or treatment plan for any individual situation. Use of this site and the information contained herein does not create a doctor-patient relationship. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.