If you are a parent, then car seats are a part of your life. And poorly installed and used car seats are not safe, but many of us simply don’t know all the do’s and don’ts of car seat safety! Today I am welcoming my older sister Brittany Roberts to share her researched knowledge on car seat safety, even including where to get your seats, how to install car seats, and all sorts of great tips! I hope you learn something to help you keep your little ones(s) safer while driving. My affiliate links are used in this post.When I first became a mother, I was completely oblivious of what was right or wrong when it came to proper car seat usage and installation. I did the best to my knowledge in the beginning, but over time became obsessed with doing my own research on keeping my kids safe in their car seats. And I began to learn more of the “rules” of car seat safety. Now, almost 4 years into this motherhood gig, I feel very confident in how my kids use their car seats, which is a great feeling. I know they are the safest they can be in a moving vehicle.
And I want you to feel that confident too! Today, I want to share some of my car seat knowledge with you, creating a sort of car seat guide, so that you may learn a thing or two, or share the following information on to someone who may need it. I write this to the best of my knowledge and am not a trained car seat inspector or anything, so please do your own research. Get in touch with someone who is trained if you have questions that reach beyond this post. Let’s all keep those little ones safe!
Getting a Car Seat Checklist
So if you’re in the market for a new car seat, you may be wondering, where do I start? Well, for starters, you run a very large risk when buying used. And these are some reasons why buying used can ultimately be unsafe for your child:
- Did the previous owner ever wash the harness straps? The straps have special fire retardant chemicals on the fabric to keep your little ones safe in the event of a serious crash and car fire. Also, washing a harness, even once, can possibly weaken the fabric, causing them to not keep your little one as tight as they need to be if you are in an accident. (If you, yourself, have already washed the straps, please call the car seat manufacturer: many (but not all) sell straps you can buy for a small price. Also, you can clean straps with some warm water or a baby wipe the best you can, and then set it out in the sun to get any smell out.)
- Was it ever checked on an airplane? Ever get that piece of luggage back that was damaged in some way when flying? Well it’s sad to say, but many have had that happen when checking a car seat, even at the gate. Baggage handlers are paid for speed and nothing, even a car seat, will get in the way of that. So checking a car seat gives the seat an unknown history which can be very dangerous in the end.
- Was it in any sort of crash or mishandled? Some car seats have very strict rules on when to replace them and when it’s okay to continue use. Maybe the previous owner got into a minor fender bender, and, since they were alright, thought the seat was still fine.
- Is it expired? Although car seats have various lengths of time they are good to use, all seats expire at some point. Car seats have expiration dates because the material starts to break down over time. Plus, new seats come out yearly and the safety is always being reevaluated. The manufacture date will always be somewhere on the seat.
There are just too much unknowns with buying used. Unless you can trust this person with the safety and life of your own child, just don’t do it.
There are lots of options for buying safe, quality car seats that will not break the bank. You just need to know what you are looking for. For a new baby, you can buy an infant seat or a convertible one. I really like this list of recommended rear and forward facing car seats from Car Seats for the Littles. I would also recommend looking over their Ultimate Car Seat Guide for New Parents post. Both of those should help you figure out what car seat is right for you and your baby.
When you are buying a car seat, I highly recommend you know the store’s return policy on car seats, just in case, for whatever reason, the car seat doesn’t fit the size of your child or fit in your car. If you are worried about size of the car seat compared to back seat of your vehicle some stores (mostly Buy Buy Baby and Babies R’ Us) will actually let you try it in your car before you buy. But, there are also many great sites that list the actual size of seats so you can get a general idea of what you are getting yourself into.
If you are strapped for cash, be sure to look into Car Seat Assistance programs in your area. Many hospitals or fire departments will offer some for free and even show you how to properly install it. See this post about how Katelyn got hers.
Rear-Facing and Convertible Car Seats
Now that you have a seat, you have to know which direction you will be facing it before you install it (which I’ll talk about next). The American Academy of Pediatrics now recommend that children are rear-facing until age two, and many convertible car seats will actually allow a child to rear face until the age of three years and older. It’s actually fairly common nowadays to find parents maxing out those convertible car seats for their maximum rear facing limits. I also know many parents that simply don’t understand why anyone would want to do that.
One of the big reasons is your child’s bones:
“A toddler’s vertebrae are connected via cartilage rather than ossified bone. Those connections are called synchondroses, which are slowly closing over time. There are three major points of ossification, each with two synchondroses. According to a study published in the Association for the Advancement of Automotive Medicine, the first station to close is the C3, second is the axis, and third is the atlas. The results of the study show:
- 50% probability that the primary closure of the C3 is complete at age 2 and the secondary at age 3.
- 50% probability that the primary closure of the axis is complete at age 5 and the secondary at age 6.
- 50% probability that the primary closure of the atlas is complete at age 7 and the secondary at age 8.
These findings show that before age two, none of the cartilaginous spaces have completed ossification. Those pieces of cartilage have the ability to stretch up to two inches. Yet only 1/4″ stretch is enough to rupture the spinal column, resulting in paralysis or death.” Source: Car Seat for the Littles – Why Rear-Facing? The Science Junkies Guide**If you are looking for kid-friendly stops along your route, be sure to download the GoWhee app the best app for traveling families.**
In short, it is generally safer for you child to be rear-facing as long as possible. However, some kids get car sick, and some parents think that turning them forward facing can help, but it doesn’t always. I also know that some kids are also very heavy, prompting you to have to turn them sooner. However, there are convertible seat options for heavier kids which will allow them to rear-face longer, but they do run a pretty penny. Thankfully sales on seats are always coming and going so if you have a bigger kid don’t rule rear-facing out as an option. For more information about rear facing, check out Rear Facing Car Seat Myths Debunked.
Also if you have made the switch already to forward facing and thinking about turning your kid back around, DO IT! I see people do it all the time without having a single complaint from their child, no matter how old they are. Remember to follow your car seat limits though, as that is the most important guideline to follow. So, when choosing a convertible car seat, it’s important to know the limits for the seat and have a general idea of how your child’s growing curve is. If you have a small petite child your options are endless. For taller children it’s important to look at how high in inches these puppies really go.
I personally don’t have much experience with extended rear-facing. My oldest, now 3.5 years old, was only rear faced until 18 months, but my youngest, who is 18 months currently, I’m hoping to keep rear facing until at least two years old. People always think kids will complain that they will have no leg room, but kids adjust and figure out how they want their legs. My daughter often does this, pictured below, or puts her feet up on the back of the seat:We use a small front to back convertible – the Chicco Nextfit pictured above – because our previous one could not rear face at the right angle in our car after we bought a newer, smaller, vehicle. But, remember to stay in your budget; there are still many great options out there for around $100 or less.
Forward-Facing Seats and Boosters and Beyond
Once your child outgrows his rear-facing car seat, or you’ve decided to turn them around, you may be wondering about forward-facing car seats as well as booster seats. There’s a lot of things to consider when forward facing a seat.
Also there are many options for an array of different budgets in mind. So don’t just switch your kiddo to a booster when they truly are not ready because they are cheaper.
Maybe you’re one of the lucky ones who got your convertible seat to last you all the way until your child qualified for a booster seat. I was one of the unlucky ones with a big kid.
Boosters are the next step. I don’t have any experience with boosters, but I did find a great link that tells you all about when to make the switch from a 5 point harness to a booster seat. If you want to make the switch is to a booster seat, your child should be:
- At least 5 years old.
- Meet the weight and height minimums for the booster seat you’re considering.
- Responsible enough to sit properly 100% of the time, even while asleep.
- Finally, they need to have a safe belt fit.”
No More Car Seats or Boosters!
And then moving out of car seats all together. I found that in order for a child to fit the car’s seat belt correctly, the following must *all* be true for your child. This is commonly called the 5-step test:
- Shoulder belt is firmly in the middle of the shoulder.
- Lapbelt is low on the thighs.
- Bum is all the way back in the vehicle seat bight.
- Knees bend beyond the edge of the vehicle seat and feet rest on the floor.
- Child can maintain this position 100% of the time without moving.
Installing the Car Seat Properly
(Hint – It’s all about the owner’s manuals)
Once you buy your car seat, you now need to properly use and install it! This is when you must become friends and all too familiar with your car seat’s owner’s manual as well as the car manual.
Some car seats need to be spaced “X” amount from the seat in front of them, while others can lightly touch the seat, and a few can touch it completely. It all just depends on using the two manuals together to figure out what they both allow. Be careful in this because some newer cars have something called Advanced Air Bags in the automotive seats themselves. Make sure you know how to install your seat with that in mind, as well as your car’s manual. I also recommend reading You Bought a New Car Seat! Now what? which has a great rundown on how to properly install car seats.
LATCH or Belts
When installing car seats, you have to decide how you are going to secure it to the car, choosing between the LATCH system (which stands for “Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children”) or the car’s seat belts.
The LATCH system was designed to make installing car seats easier for parents and eliminate seat belt incompatibilities. I must say, I really enjoy using the LATCH method now that we have a car that has the LATCH anchors. My daughter’s seat is amazing for the LATCH system – it’s a Chicco Nextfit. It is so easy, I just love it! Plus, it was one of the few rear facing car seats to fit in our small car properly.
However, be aware that the LATCH anchors have a weight limit, which combines the weight of child and the weight of seat, which limit will be set for each individual car (again why the car manual is important to read!) So just be careful of that. Check out this great post all about the LATCH system and what your car’s limits may be over at Car Seats for the Littles. Also, be aware if you want to put your child in the middle with LATCH, be sure you can do it, because not all cars have their own LATCH system for the middle seat, and you shouldn’t borrow the ones to the side.
My oldest child is too heavy to use the LATCH system in our car, but he has a easy-to-install-with-a-seat-belt car seat – the Britax Frontier 85. When using a seat belt to install a car seat, please remember to lock it. Pull the seat belt all the way out, and slowly let it slack back. When you try to pull it back out it should not allow for any more slack. If it does, make sure it locks from the car to the seat belt buckle; if it doesn’t do that either, you might need to use a locking clip. It wasn’t until 1997 that all vehicles were required to have locking seat belts, but some did have them before then.
The following videos can help explain what I mean by side-to-side movement and locking the seat belt:
Also, when forward-facing, always use the Top Tether in your car!
Being able to find these tether points will be in your automobile manual. Using a tether reduces the movement at the top/head portion of the seat, greatly reducing the risk of injury in the case of an accident. If you are in a car without tethers or don’t have enough tethers, call your local car dealership for your model of car and they should be able to fix you up at little to no cost.One last thing about installing car seats in your vehicle. Some of us may drive really nice cars and we want to keep them as nice as possible (I know, maybe a pipe dream with kids anyway), but don’t be tempted to buy seat protectors. They are not a good choice because they are aftermarket products (even if they are made by the company), and they can make for a bad install of a car seat, making it appear like you have it installed a lot tighter than it actually is because it has grips to hold the car seat in place.
If you have any questions about your car seat being installed properly, you can also take it to get checked by certified car seat technicians in your area. Kate even attended the World’s Largest Car Seat check back in Indianapolis over a year ago. You can find a Child Passenger Safety Technicians (CPST) in your area HERE.
Adjusting the Car Seat to Fit Your Child
Before you install your car seat though, you really need to make sure the straps and buckles are at the proper heights for your child. Minor adjustments will be made once they are place in it, but it sliding those straps through the back holes needs to be done ahead of time.
For rear facing car seats the straps must be at or below the shoulders. This is for their safety! Not all seats are alike and some simply put their straps too high for an average or below average-sized newborn baby.
For forward facing car seats the straps must be at or above the shoulders.
The chest clip needs to be at arm pit level. If you have issues with kids moving around (because some do), I suggest talking to them, telling them they need it there for their safety (assuming they are about 2 years or older). Kids truly understand more than we think! It’s very important the chest clip stays at this level during your drive to keep them properly in the seat. With the chest clip here it won’t cause injury to anywhere it shouldn’t be sitting, in the event of a crash.
Also make sure they are tight enough to pass what is called the pinch test. This is where you simply try to pinch the fabric of the safety belt at your little one’s shoulders. Can you pick up any slack with your fingers? Then it’s too loose. However, there is no need to over tighten it. If your little one is getting big red marks from the harness, try to see if maybe it’s too tight but make sure there still isn’t enough slack to pass the pinch test. However, if your child’s car seat straps didn’t come with those covers, don’t buy some cute ones with little animal faces on them! These products have not been crash tested with your seat and are deemed unsafe simply due to the unknown of what could truly happen. It’s not something I would want to toy around with. If you truly feel like you need strap covers, sometimes the company who made your car seat will have approved strap covers that can be sent to you for cheap, and sometimes even free. But, I have often found simply pulling the collar of your little one’s shirt up from underneath that straps can help with any red marks or uncomfortability.Last but not least remember anything you can strap onto a harness is dangerous because once again it was never tested and no one really knows what could happen in the time of a crash. This includes paci leashes: find a better place to put them.
General Car Seat Safety Tips
Does your baby hate being in the car? Are you totally eying all those toys and mirrors that clip onto your child’s car seat? I strongly suggest not getting them! In the event of an accident, these hanging, attached, doo-dads, are not safe: they could become a projectile that could hurt your little one, as these products have not be crash tested.
The same is generally true of all things you carry in your car. For safety reasons, heavy toys should have no place in the car. I have heard people say if you aren’t comfortable being hit in the head by it when another adult throws it at you, it has no place in the car with you! This includes unsecured diaper bags, sippy cups, hard toys, hard bins for holding toys, or anything else just sitting in your car. If you don’t have a trunk, look into ways to strapping stuff down while you drive.
The same thing is all of these aftermarket products that come between your child and their seat. These are a big NO, NO! No little “Bundle Me” type products, or headrest, or pillows, or custom covers unless they go around the outside of the seat, like a shower cap, or that hang off the handle (like the Carseat Canopy covers which you can get for FREE with code ENBABY at checkout!) are safe because they do not interfere with fit of harness. They don’t come between the baby and the seat.
Also please never put an infant seat at the top of a shopping cart. There is something called stress fractures that happens to the plastic and sometimes misuse of a seat (even just putting it on top of a cart) can cause that to happen. Sometimes these fractures will not appear on the outside but in the inside plastic, making it impossible to see. Also carts are not made to be top heavy, so please don’t put a child who is heavy on top of a cart making it extremely top heavy. Carts have been known to tip over with a child on top, causing serious injury to the child! So if you want to keep your baby in their infant car seat as you shop, and safely, just put the car seat in the basket. Or you get yourself a nice baby carrier. You can pick up a FREE Baby Sling with Promo code ENBABY from Seven Slings.
During the winter be aware that heavy coats and car seats don’t mix. A puffy coat will compress in the event of a crash. No matter how hard you pull that harness you will never be able to pull with such force as a crash will push on your little one’s body. This post suggests some alternatives for car seat safety in the winter months.
Taking Car Seats on an Airplane
If you are about to take a big trip, it’s very important to get a seat for your baby even if under the age of two. Please bring their car seats along since once again baggage checking is potentially damaging to the car seat and you will need it at your destination anyway. Make sure your car seat is Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approved; sometimes having papers that state this, and the FAA rules for car seat travel on an airplane can be helpful. Some individuals do run into problems with flight attendants, so having the rules on hand can make for a much smoother flight in the long run. But honestly picture this if you hit turbulence no matter how big your hold is on your child there are chances your child might be out of your hands and you cannot do anything about it. I tried to find the news story where an infant child had this happen luckily and they were caught a few rows up by another passenger. If that’s not scary, I don’t know what is!
I suggest check out the following websites:
- CarSeatsfortheLittles.org as well as their Facebook group which has certified techs to help answer those questions you can’t seem to find answers to.
- National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
And in case you still don’t get it or have an issue where you need hands-on help? Find a certified tech in your area HERE.
I know car seats are often a hassle for parents, from having to pay so much for them, to recalls, to getting a child to love using them for eight years, and so on. But, I know that doing my very best to keep my child safe, gives me a great feeling. Because taking our children for car rides, even a quick ride to the corner store, is dangerous, as car accidents are among the #1 causes of death of young children. I hope no one has to go through a horrible crash, ever, but I hope that your little one is as safe as they can be and will be alright. Of course, I understand every situation and child is different, but you, as the parent, will have to make the choices you feel comfortable and right about. I suggest always doing your research, and praying about these things as well.
Tell me, did you learn anything new about car seats? Did I miss anything?