Ready for some sobering news? According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, car crashes remain a leading cause of death for children. That’s despite the strides in car seat safety we’ve taken in the last decade alone.
Car seats should be a no-brainer: pop baby in and be on your way, right? Unfortunately, that’s not the case. As a 2016 study published in the Journal of Pediatrics revealed, seat manuals can be complicated and there is a whole lot of room for error. In this particular study, researchers and car seat safety technicians studied more than 300 moms as they installed seats and tucked their babies in them. While the severity of their mistakes ranged from minor to critical, 95 percent of participants either misused the seat or installed it improperly.
But, before you swear off car travel for good, know this: There’s plenty we can do as parents to ensure our kids stay safe while on the road. And it all starts with choosing the right car seat and ensuring you know just how to use it.
Below, we outline five car seat safety rules to help you and baby feel more secure on the go.
Use the right seat
While it’s true that there are countless car seats on the market, new and expectant parents will be looking at two categories: infant and convertible. A convertible car seat sits babies and toddlers alike, but an infant seat is meant for babies exclusively. Once baby is both 1 year old and 20 pounds or greater, he or she may transition out of this portable, bucket-like car seat and into a rear-facing safety seat. Please note that babies must fit both the age and weight requirements before moving onto a rear-facing convertible seat.
Say no to accessories
Those soft and pillowy pads meant to protect baby’s cheeks from rough car seat straps? As cute and comfy as they may be, adding them to your child’s seat may actually put your little one in danger. In fact, any product you add may change the way your seat performs in a car crash. Instead, do without or look to your seat’s manufacturer for items designed and crash-tested for your specific model.
Additionally, infant car seats often come with a cushy insert that helps keep your newborn snug while traveling. As long as you use the insert included with your seat by the manufacturer, these are perfectly safe to use — until baby hits a certain weight. Check your seat’s instruction manual and expect to find a weight limit around the 10-15 pound mark.
A simple safety maxim to memorize: Put nothing between baby and the car seat. That means no luxe car seat warmers, no bulky winter jackets, and no cozy swaddles. If you’re looking to keep your infant warm in winter, layer up with blankets once they have been strapped in safely. For toddlers and older children using a five-point harness, look to slim sweaters and encourage kids to use their unworn coat as a blanket.
Install the carseat properly
This one seems obvious, but reports show that the vast majority of car seats are installed with an error. When it comes to installation, there are three main points to consider: method, movement, and angle.
Any car seat may be installed using either the LATCH system (lower anchor and tethers for children) or by threading the seatbelt through the safety seat. Both are perfectly safe up until a certain poundage. Check your car seat manual for weight limitations on the LATCH system. Most seats must be swapped to the seatbelt method once the weight of the seat itself plus your child’s weight exceeds 65 pounds. No matter the method, using a tether for a forward-facing seat greatly reduces the risk of injury in the event of an accident.
Once installed, a seat — whether secured by the LATCH system or seatbelt — should wiggle no more than one inch when pushed at the base. This applies to both side-to-side movement and front-to-back.
Every car seat will have a level on the side of the base to indicate the correct angle for your child. This one’s pretty easy to figure out, though important not to overlook. These levels may vary from seat to seat, so check your instruction manual for details. Note that the angle differs when installed in the rear-facing position versus forward-facing.
If you have concerns about installing your seat properly, your local fire department may be able to help. Many have safety technicians on-hand to help parents set up their car seats securely.
Get the right fit
What good is perfect installation if baby’s not sitting safely? To ensure your little one rides safe and sound, keep these tips for a proper fit in mind:
- Keep baby’s back and bottom flat against the seat.
- Make sure the harness is adjusted to the correct height. For infant seats, the shoulder straps should hit at or below baby’s shoulders. For forward-facing convertibles, straps should fall at or above your child’s shoulders. Check your seat’s manual to ensure the harness is adjusted properly.
- The harness should fit snugly against baby’s chest. To double-check your tightening skills, make certain you can’t pinch the fabric once your little one’s settled in and ready to go.
- Place the chest clip against baby’s chest at armpit level.
As parents, we are often eager to have our babies hit specific milestones: Roll over? Check. Crawl? Got it. First steps? Right on track. But, the transitions involving car travel require a great deal of caution. The AAP issued new guidelines for car seat safety in August of 2018. In its statement, they encouraged parents to keep their children rear-facing for as long as possible — until kids reached the max weight or height requirements for their specific seats. Prior to this statement, the AAP recommended that parents keep babies rear-facing until 2 years old. The new guidelines do away with this age milestone.
When children outgrow the rear-facing option, the AAP recommends that parents keep them in a forward-facing car seat with a five-point harness for as long as their height and weight allow (often 65 pounds — but again, every car seat manual will provide this information specific to your seat).
The rule here is that with each transition, from rear-facing to forward-facing to booster seat, a child loses a level of protection in the event of a crash. Taking these steps slowly, according to the maximum weight and height limits specified in your manual, will help keep your child safer, longer.