Parenting truth: Car seats are complicated. That’s why it’s not totally surprising that nearly half of all car seats are installed or used incorrectly, according to a study from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Of course, none of us are intentionally putting our kids in danger. As parents, there’s nothing more important to us than our child’s safety, especially in the car, where crashes remain a leading cause of death for children. Sometimes, we just don’t know what we don’t know. The good news is that while car seat mistakes are common, there are plenty of things we can do to keep our kids safe in the car.
Nationally certified child passenger safety expert and founder of Safe is the Seat Michelle Pratt summed it up simply: “Car seat safety isn’t intuitive or common sense. Parental instinct isn’t going to kick in and help you get harnessing or installation right. But that’s okay, because we can help.”
Knowing we all want our child to be traveling as safely as possible, we’ve rounded up expert tips on these nine common car seat safety mistakes and what to do instead.
1. The Issue: The Car Seat is Too Loose
Car seat installation mistakes are extremely common, according to Pratt. “Most often, the car seat is not attached to the vehicle properly and/or the car seat is not installed securely.”
The Solve: Check that the car seat is properly installed by confirming that it moves less than one inch in any direction when checked at the belt path with your non-dominant hand.
2. The Issue: The Chest Clip is Too High or Too Low
Harnessing mistakes are also pervasive, Pratt said. “Details matter: the tightness of the straps, the overall adjustments of harness straps and the crotch buckle, as well as placement of the chest clip, if your car seat has one. Each of these details need to be spot-on for your child’s car seat to properly position their body and protect them in a crash.”
The Solve: Position the chest clip at the top of your child’s armpits, which ensures that the shoulder straps will stay firmly planted on the top of your child’s shoulders.
3. The Issue: Moving Forward-Facing Too Soon
“The other most common mistake parents make is prematurely moving their child to the next stage of car seat before it’s time,” Pratt said. “This puts a child at great risk, and it’s why we want to encourage parents to take this one slow. There is zero benefit in racing ahead before it’s time to transition to the next stage.”
The Solve: Keep your child rear-facing in the car seat until they have maxed out the weight or height limit allowed by the car seat manufacturer. Not sure what that is? Check your car seat manual, which will have that information.
4. The Issue: Wearing Puffy Coats
A puffy coat may keep your little one warm, but the extra padding of the material is providing a false sense of harness tightness—it creates space between the harness and your child’s body that allows for movement that could cause serious injury or even death in a crash.
The Solve: Buckle your child into the seat without any additional layers. Then, use a blanket tucked snug around their body or hand them their coat to use like a blanket to keep them warm.
5. The Issue: Adding Extras
Pratt said she gets questions all the time from parents about adding products like harness pads, head supports, and inserts that didn’t come with the car seat. Many of these items are sold on shelves near the car seats in stores and seem like they’re safe. Why would companies be able to sell them if they aren’t safe, right?
Unfortunately, these add-on items have not been tested with the specific car seat you have, so there is no way to know. The fact is that any product you add that did not come with the car seat you purchased may change the way your seat performs in a car crash.
The Solve: Only use products that came in the original packaging of the car seat. Many car seat manufacturers provide their own harness covers, head supports, and inserts with the car seat.
6. The Issue: Getting Help From the Wrong Places
“Asking for help is the best safety tip I can give parents,” Pratt said. “So many people still think you can go to a fire station to have your car seat checked, but what they don’t know is that most fire stations do not have nationally certified child passenger safety technicians on staff, nor do hospitals. And pediatricians and nurses are often not trained in car seat safety—it’s just not part of their medical training. The best-intentioned police officers, firefighters, doctors, and nurses are vital to our communities, but that doesn’t mean by default that they are experts in car seat safety.”
The Solve: For car seat safety, be sure to ask for help and be sure you’re getting it from a current, nationally certified expert.
7. The Issue: Ignoring or Not Knowing Expiration Dates
Car seats expire for two main reasons: First, possible deterioration or breakdown of the plastic shell or other parts of the car seat. Second, updated safety performance standards or labeling requirements. You want your child’s car seat to function at its best, so the expiration date definitely matters.
The Solve: Check your child’s car seat expiration date and set a reminder on your calendar if you need to. If you aren’t sure where the expiration date is listed, check the manufacturer’s manual.
8. The Issue: Using Vehicle Seat Protectors
We get it, car seats have to be installed tightly into the car, which can leave imprints on your vehicle’s seats. Not to mention that kids are generally messy creatures who are hard to clean up after, especially in the crevices between the car seat and the vehicle seat.
It’s tempting to buy a vehicle seat protector, but the issue here is similar to that of the puffy coat—it provides a false sense of car seat tightness against the vehicle, leaving room for motion that could put your child in danger in a crash.
The Solve: Some car seat manufacturers allow a thin sheet or towel between the car seat and the vehicle seat while some do not. Check the manufacturer’s manual to see what your options are.
9. The Issue: Not Adjusting Harness Straps
Once you get the perfect fit for your child and have the car seat installed and checked by a certified expert, you may feel a sense of relief that the hard part is done. And in many ways, it is. But kids grow, and car seat fit, like the position of the harness straps, needs to be adjusted. Incorrectly positioned harness straps can lead to increased risk for injury in a crash.
The Solve: Check the harness fit every time you buckle your child into their car seat so you notice when it needs to be adjusted. If your child has a car seat in another car (partner/co-parent, grandparent, or other caregiver), set a reminder to check it every few months.
In a rear-facing seat, the harness height should be at or slightly below the shoulders. In a forward-facing seat, the harness height should be at or slightly above the shoulders.