Buckle Up Baby: A Mom’s Guide To Car Seat Safety

Most parents struggle with car seat installation. Here’s how to cut through all the confusion.

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My daughter was just a few months old when the technician climbed in the back seat of my car and said, “The way you’ve installed it, your car seat is a baby death trap.” Okay, maybe she didn’t say baby death trap. But as a new mom who wanted nothing more than to protect my newborn baby, hearing that the one thing designed to keep my little girl safe in the car hadn’t been installed correctly was akin to being told I was a horrible mom. I wasn’t. Nor was I particularly unique. Studies have shown some 95 percent of parents make at least one major mistake when we install our kids’ car seats. That’s almost every parent! We all mean well, but every car and car seat is different, creating a whole lot of room for error. So how do you wade through it all to make sure your baby is safe and secure?

Do you have the right car seat?

The world of car seats can be confusing for the uninitiated. What’s a booster? A forward facer? The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration breaks down the types of safety devices on the market into three basic groups:

Rear-Facing Car Seats

Just as the name implies, these types of car seats are installed facing the back of the car. That’s the suggested mode of getting around for baby’s first two years, so these types of seats are a must in the early days of life. Rear-facing seats are designed to cradle your child’s head, neck, and spine in case of a crash.

Forward-Facing Car Seats

Yup, you guessed it—these seats are made for the day when you can turn your toddler around to see the world through the front window of the car. These seats come with both a harness to keep baby inside in case of a crash and a tether to keep the seat itself hooked in place in the car. Some seats can actually transition from rear-facing to forward-facing safety devices, which can save you money.

Booster Seats

Designed for older kids (ages will vary based on manufacturer suggestions and your child’s height and weight), booster seats boost a child’s body up so that the car’s seatbelt sits safely across their body. The seats are usually the last step before your kiddo is ready to ride without a safety device, but they can end up sitting in them for several years before that happens.

Manuals Matter

If you’ve installed one seat, you can install them all, right? Not so fast. Parents tend to get more lax regarding car seat safety as kids get older (almost a quarter admit to letting their kids out of a booster seat because they “felt like it,” rather than checking the rules), but no matter how good you think you are at installation, it’s always worth giving the manual a read. The car seat manual will include guidelines that relate to your child’s height and weight, and the manual might suggest setting up the seat in one particular spot in the car (such as the middle of the back seat). The proper way to install one brand’s car seat, or one type of safety seat, may be vastly different from another. In fact, sometimes the safest way to install a particular seat will differ depending on the type of car you have, so be sure to consult the manual before taking baby for a ride.

Follow the rules, not just the laws.

Car seat safety laws vary wildly from state to state in America, which can make finding the safest seat confusing for parents. The laws should always be followed, but it’s not just okay to be more cautious than whatever’s on the books in your state—it’s recommended by experts. In states like Florida and Arkansas, for example, the law requires child restraints for kids 6 and younger. But the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends kids remain in a car seat until they’ve reached 4 feet 9 inches tall and are between 8 and 12 years of age. The AAP also recommends kids remain rear-facing until age 2, a guideline that’s stricter than many state laws, and studies back up the pediatricians. Kids are safer watching the world go by out the back window until they’re over 24 months old.

It doesn’t add up.

You’ve seen the fun toys, the pretty blankets, and those cozy-looking strap covers. The market is chock full of aftermarket products aimed at making car seats more comfortable for kids. Just one problem: Most aftermarket products come with a loud warning from car seat experts, who advise against any add-ons, lest they become an issue in a crash. Adding anything to the straps (or even dressing kids in puffy winter wear), for example, can alter the fit of the harness, which will affect how well the seat performs in an accident. The AAP warns that “if you can pinch the straps of the car seat harness, then it needs to be tightened to fit snugly against your child’s chest.” The group advises against coats or other items that will stand in the way of that perfect fit. When in doubt? Go back to the manual. Car seat manufacturers include information about what can and can’t be used with a seat.

Dial a tech.

Feeling overwhelmed? Don’t panic! You don’t have to beg your pediatrician to start making home visits to ensure a safe install. If you can’t figure out how to install your car seat (or just want someone to double check your work), the folks at Safe Kids Worldwide have got your back. Just search their tool by state and city, and you can find a child safety seat technician who’s been certified to teach you the right way to install a seat.

Register your seat.

A car seat doesn’t require registration to work—it’s not like your computer software. But don’t throw that little registration card away! Use it! If a car seat manufacturer issues a recall for a seat—and these often pop up in the news—the info they receive when you register will enable the manufacturer to send you a personal note indicating whether you need to exchange your child’s seat or get it repaired. Already have a seat that you forgot to register? You can register it on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s website.

Jeanne Sager
Jeanne Sager is a writer and photographer from upstate New York. She has strung words together for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and more.

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