Must-Read Car Seat Safety Tips and Resources

by Kristen King

The single most important decision you make as a parent is one you make every time you get in the car: whether and how you use a child safety seat to keep your kiddo(s) safe in a moving vehicle. Are you using the right seat the right way 100% of the time? If not, your child is riding at risk.

  • The right seat is the one that fits your child, fits your car, and fits your budget. More expensive seats don’t make your child safer. Using a seat correctly is what makes your child safer.
  • Car seats work perfectly or not at all, and you get to decide. You may have the best, newest seat and the best, newest car, but if your seat is not installed properly and your kid is not buckled correctly every. single. time. he. rides. it doesn’t matter. You have to do it right, or your kid could die.

Vehicle crashes are the number 1 killer of children ages 1 to 13. Child safety seats, more commonly called car seats, can mean the difference between life and death for your child in an accident. Yet you may be surprised to learn that car seats have a 95% rate of misuse, and almost all of it by parents who think they’re using their seat correctly.

This is a fact: If you don’t use your car seat exactly as it’s intended to be used, your child is in greater danger of death or injury in a crash. That means installing it correctly and using it correctly every single time your child gets in the car, no matter what. That also means educating other people who drive and ride with your child on how to keep your child safe in the car.

Here’s what every parent needs to know about car seat safety.

Bare Minimum of Car Seat Installation Dos and Don’t

  • Read the vehicle manual. Your car’s manual will tell you where you can safely install child safety seats in your car and what you need to know about seatbelts, LATCH, tethers, and other issue specific to your own vehicle.
  • Read your safety seat manual. The manual that comes with your safety seat will tell you exactly how to install it and use it safely. If you don’t have the manual that goes with your seat, you can get it free online.
  • Use the seatbelt or LATCH, but not both.Install your safety seat correctly using just one method – whichever gives you the safest installation. They’re not designed for use with both the belt and the LATCH at the same time. Using the seat in a way it’s not designed is not safe.
    • NOTE: LATCH makes it easier to install seats correctly, but is not right for every seat. These permanent anchors that appear in all newer cars have a weight limit, so your older, larger child who still needs to be in a safety seat may be safest if you use a seatbelt to install her seat. Requirements are changing next year, but the weight limit matters now. Educate yourself. Refer to your vehicle and seat manuals for vehicle- and seat-specific details.
  • Lock your seatbelt if that’s what you use. Check your vehicle manual for instructions on pre-crash seatbelt locking. For older cars without locking belts, use a metal locking clip. Some safety seats have built-in lock-offs. See your safety seat’s manual.
  • Limit wiggle room to 1 inch. At the belt path, the base of the safety seat should move no more than one inch side to side. Push the seat down when you install it so you can remove slack in the seatbelt or the LATCH belt. (I have to kneel on my seats to get them in tight enough.)
  • Level your seat. Use a tightly rolled towel or a pool noodle (up to three in a triangle)under the edge of your rear-facing safety seat if it’s not level or at the correct angle. Many seats have a sticker on the side showing you the angle. See your seat’s manual.
  • Check position of the handle for infant carriers. Each seat is different, so check the manual. Some seats allow the handle in the carry position while the seat is installed in the car. Others require it back by the baby’s head.

Bare Minimum of Car Seat Usage Dos and Don’t

My absolutely favorite go-to for car seat use basics is The Picture Guide to Car Seat Safety. Bookmark it, refer to it regularly, and share it with your friends who are using their car seats wrong. (That’s what I do, anyway!) Here are some of the highlights, in my own words.

  • Harness Straps: Tight. Straps should be as tight as you can get them without hurting your kid. Loose straps do not hold your child in the seat. He or she can be partially ejected or fully ejected from the seat in a crash. This is the most common mistake. If you can pinch the strap, it’s too loose. If you can wiggle your kid around in the seat, it’s too loose. You want your child to move around in the seat as little as possible in the event of an impact.
  • Harness Straps: Smooth. Straps must lay flat and feed through the buckles with no twisting or folding. Twisted straps may not be positioned correctly to keep your child in the seat in an accident, and they are harder to tighten properly because they don’t slide through the buckles. Twists can also create weak points in the straps that may cause them to tear or break. Make sure your straps are straight, flat, and smooth every time you use your seat.
  • Chest Clip. The chest clip belongs at armpit level, no lower than the nipples. That’s why it’s a CHEST clip, not a bottom-of-the-ribs clip or a middle-of-the-belly clip or a sitting-against-the-crotch-buckle clip. Its job is to keep the straps aligned over your child’s shoulders to keep  him or her in the seat during a crash. If you place it lower, your child could be fully or partially ejected from the seat or could suffer serious damage to internal organs.
  • Aftermarket Products.Don’t use anything in the seat that didn’t come with it.  I don’t care how cute it is; it’s not safe. That includes strap covers, head rests, body supports, and any kind of cover that goes under your baby or under the straps. They can keep the seat from functioning properly such as by preventing you from putting the chest clip in the right place or causing your child to be ejected from the seat because the straps aren’t tight enough. Using aftermarket products can also void your warranty. Don’t do it.
  • Bulky Clothes. Car seats and coats don’t mix. Your child should never wear anything thicker than a sweatshirt when strapped into her car seat. And neither should you, for that matter. Bulky clothes like snowsuits and winter coats compress in an accident, leaving the straps (or your seatbelt) loose, which you already know puts your child at risk of being fully or partially ejected from the seat. Put blankets on top of your child once she’s buckled in safely, or put her coat on backwards, over top of the correctly used straps and buckles for bigger kids. “But it’s cold here! She’ll be cold!” Suck it up, cupcake. There are other ways than putting her in a coat in her car seat. Would you rather she be cold for five minutes, or would you rather she be dead? I’d pick cold, but that’s just me.

Other Car Seat Considerations

  • Keep your child rear facing as long as possible. The rear-facing position is 500% safer than the forward-facing position. Five. Hundred. Percent. It is LEGAL to turn your child forward facing at age 1. But just because it’s legal doesn’t mean you should do it. The American Academy of Pediatrics recently revised their recommendationsto suggest that kids remain rear facing up to a minimum of age 2. Rear-facing car seats aren’t just for babies.Watch this video addressing common objections parents have to extended rear facing and showing crash tests that demonstrate the difference between rear facing and forward facing.
    • Convertible car seats can be used rear facing up to as much as 40-45 lbs. depending on the model, and then forward facing with a harness or seatbelt up to 100 lbs. depending on the model. There are lots of options for extended rear facing. Use them.
    • NOTE: Just because your child’s feet touch the vehicle seat when he’s rear facing doesn’t mean it’s time to turn him around. Kids are flexible. They can bend or cross their legs if they’re uncomfortable. Leg injuries resulting from the rear-facing position are practically unheard of. And a broken leg is much easier to fix than a broken neck, which is what’s dramatically more likely to happen when your child is forward facing in a wreck. Ever had whiplash from a minor parking-lot fender bender? And you’re an adult with a strong neck and a head that’s in proportion to your body. Keep your kids rear facing to the maximum limits of their seat.
  • Keep your child in a five-point harness as long as possible. Age 4 years and weight 40 lbs. is the bare minimum of when you may consider switching from a harness to a seatbelt, but just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Max out the weight and height limits of when your child can use the harness in your child’s seat. Watch this crash test with a child in a seatbelt and a child in a five-point harness for a visual.
  • Keep your older child in a booster as long as possible. Seat belts are designed for adults, not children. Some adults aren’t even terribly safe in seatbelts because they’re too small for the belt to fit properly. There’s a simple test to tell whether your child is ready to ride without a booster.

General Passenger Safety

This applies to kids in car seats as well as teens and adults.
  • Projectiles in the car. Secure all loose items in your car. Something that weighs 5 lbs. in a car accident at 30 mph turns into a 150 lb. projectile when it hits you or your child. Put loose items under the seat, in the glove box, in the trunk, etc., or use a seatbelt in an empty seat to secure them. In a van or SUV, use a cargo net. Don’t forget purses, cellphones, drinks, and hard toys.
  • Unbuckled passengers and loose pets. Unbuckled passengers are also projectiles and can kill other passengers or the driver. Front seat passengers are 2-3 times more likely to die if backseat passengers aren’t belted. Everyone in the car needs to be buckled for their own safety and that of others in the car. Pets should be secured with a safety harness or placed in a secure crate or carrier.

More Info

  • Why Extended Rear-Facing is Safest. Keep your children rear-facing as long as possible. It’s 500% safer than forward facing – even if your child’s feet touch the vehicle seat. (http://bit.ly/glmcBC)
  • When It’s Time for a Booster. Just because they’re big enough for the minimum size and age of the seat doesn’t mean they’re ready. (http://bit.ly/sJn3cu)
  • What You Need to Know to Buy or Sell a Used Car Seat. A new seat is best if it’s an option for your family, but you can also buy and sell used seats safely with these tips. (http://bit.ly/VdFeN4)
  • Carseat Safety Basics Checklists for All Ages. From Safe Kids Worldwide. (http://bit.ly/12dxWNB)

Favorite Resources

  • Car Seats for the Littles (https://www.facebook.com/groups/CarSeatsForTheLittles)
  • The Car Seat Lady (http://www.thecarseatlady.com/)
  • Car Seat Inspection Station Locator (http://icsw.nhtsa.gov/cps/cpsfitting/)

What are your favorite car seat safety tips and resources? Leave a comment or share on our Facebook page.

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Kristen King (aka, Mommy-in-Training) is a red-headed, glasses-wearing, wine-drinking, perpetually undercaffeinated twin mom who lives at 10,200 feet in Leadville Colorado, and founder of AmateurParenting.com. She and her husband, Jesse (aka, Daddy-in-Training) have fraternal boys born in December 2011, two dogs, and two cats. They are both endurance athletes. She works full-time from home in virtual training, and he drives the local school bus. Learn more and meet the rest of the AmateurParenting.com team on our About page.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Suzanna March 1, 2013 at 4:07 pm

Looks like you’ve got it covered. You couldn’t have made it any easier for your readers. I hope this is passed on and shared repeatedly because some people really don’t think this far. What’s the point of safety equipment if you don’t use it properly? It’s like not using the straps on a helmet, turning airbags off, not wearing YOUR seatbelt… It’s all pointless and lives are at stake. Thanks for this & keep up the good work as always. (;

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2 Kristen King, Mommy-in-Training March 1, 2013 at 4:09 pm

Thanks for commenting, Suzanna! Share away. ;)

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3 Kathryn March 6, 2013 at 2:23 am

Reading manuals are great source of information on how to maximize the use of each and every part of the vehicle especially the safety functions and features. It’s not just important that the kids are safe while at the vehicle, it should also be comfortable. Check the seats and seat belts, that’s the main thing to consider.
Kathryn recently posted..Wisconsin ranks 7th in nation for accidents involved deersMy Profile

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4 Wilma M December 6, 2014 at 12:11 am

Best safety tips about the car seats. I have shared it on my social’s and have liked it too. Thanks for nice sharing.
Wilma M recently posted..Britax Marathon 70-G3 Car SeatMy Profile

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5 Cassandra Surette October 29, 2015 at 6:49 am

You can feel a lot of pressure in your mind when your child is with you in the car. You may think this or that for safety.

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6 Paul Langley January 25, 2016 at 2:59 pm

This is some really helpful information for any new parent (or uncle/go-to babysitter). I especially liked your comment about the seat working perfectly or not at all. For my nephew, I ended up buying another seat because the one my brother had worked fine for his car, but not mine. And I was perfectly fine with that, because his safety is way more important than the cost. This article really helped set me at ease about his safety riding in my car, thanks so much for writing!
Paul Langley recently posted..Benbat – Travel Friend – Frog – Pacifier Teether Holder for easy access Child Total Head and Neck Support 0-12 MonthsMy Profile

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7 Demi @ baby car seats March 18, 2016 at 2:48 am

Thanks for the informative tips, Car seat safety is a hot topic. Believe me, I know it’s not an easy task. It seems the rules change “all the time” and with so many seats on the market, it’s not easy. This is very useful.

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8 Gokhan Degirmenci June 23, 2016 at 7:31 am

Every time we switch car seats (as our kids grow out of them), we schedule an appointment to have the officer do it for us. Also, when we’ve gone on long car trips for vacation, we schedule a check up to make sure the car seats are safe for our drive. It’s completely free and takes only a few minutes.

Secondly, I always take the time to fix the straps if they’re twisted. The car seat expert/police officer who spoke to our baby care class told us that if a car seat strap is twisted, the strap loses 30% of its hold. That’s a large percentage!

And lastly, I never put my children in heavy, puffy coats in the car seat. The police officer/car seat expert also told us that when a child wears a heavy or puffy coat, the seat straps aren’t as close to the child’s chest, and leaves room for the child to physically slip out of the car seat if ever in an accident. We wear our “car coats,” which are warm but thin coats, going to and from the car.

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9 Sam Webster February 26, 2017 at 6:36 pm

Thank you! This is a great collection of information on the current standards. So much information is outdated – I’m sick of reading to switch a child from rear to forward facing just because they’ve reached some predetermined milestone!!
Will definitely be sharing this with a few mothers I know ;)

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10 Kristen King November 21, 2017 at 4:16 pm

Thank you for sharing and spreading the word about carseat safety! -kk

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