Once upon a time, whenever a vehicle with leather seats came into a seat check event, techs would automatically use nonslip shelf liner. There was a myth that the nonslip would keep the car seat from damaging the vehicle’s upholstery and help keep the car seat from sliding around on the “slippery” surface. It became quite the crutch because instead of just that little bit of extra oomph to tighten the belt, the tech would depend on the nonslip grip to give that false sense of tightness. Some techs went overboard and used yards of nonslip following the theory of: if a little bit is good, then a lot must be that much better. Parents used it because they saw techs using it. An entire industry was born out of making nonslip mats to go under car seats so that parents will feel that their car seats are in securely AND that their upholstery will stay free from baby barf and ground-in Cheerios and French fries.
Somewhere along the line, someone said not to use mats—so-called “seat protectors” or “seat savers”—under car seats because of fears that the mats would be too thick and would compress in a crash, leaving the seat belt or LATCH belt (whichever you are using to secure the car seat to the vehicle) that much looser. But where did that recommendation come from? The old child passenger safety technician curriculum said only that the seat protectors probably had no benefit and could interfere with the performance of a car seat in a crash if they were too thick, but there was no dire warning. The new curriculum mentions nothing at all.
We know that the looser the car seat, the more energy is transferred to the child in a crash. But does a thin mat make a difference? What do I consider thin? What do you consider thin? Car seats really do make imprints on vehicle seats. There’s gotta be something I can do to protect my upholstery AND keep my child safe at the same time. And guess what? Now car seat manufacturers are writing in their instruction manuals that you *can* use seat protectors or thin towels under their car seats to protect your vehicle’s upholstery. This is really confusing. Will seat protectors interfere with installation and kill your child? That’s what I set out to find by performing my little experiment.
I went to Target and Babies R Us and bought every seat protector I could find and installed a Cosco Scenera on them in my dh’s SUV with leather seats. The instruction manual for the Scenera says that a towel may be used under the car seat to protect upholstery. I first installed the Scenera without a seat protector so you can see the imprint the car seat left on the leather after just a few minutes. It was quite noticeable.
My first seat protector was the Eddie Bauer Padded Seat Protector that I bought at Target. It was padded and rubberized the most along the edges. It didn’t fit the design of the vehicle seat well; the cutout for the buckle wasn’t large enough for the buckle, so it either had to sit askew or the side was pushed up on the buckle. There were no LATCH cutouts. I used two installation techniques with this seat protector: once I installed the car seat on it with a locking clip and once without. With the locking clip installation, I installed the Scenera without the mat using the locking clip and released the seat belt leaving the locking clip in place. This left the seat belt length set so I could tell if I got the same tight installation when I reinstalled the seat with the mat. I admit that it was tough, but I did get it installed with the mat. For the sake of not injuring my hand for the rest of the installs (remember, I was using a Scenera and I did have 10 more installs to do ), I simply locked the retractor instead of using a locking clip when I tightened the seat belt. I had no problems with either installation and it was quite secure.
The following mats I found at Babies R Us. Next up was the Car Seat Undermat by Especially for Baby (February 5, 2010: now known by the brand name of Sassy). This was the thinnest of them all and was a thin vinyl on one side and a thin flannel on the other; it was no thicker than a flannel sheet. There were LATCH cutouts, but no cutout for the buckle. That was OK because it was so thin that it just tucked down at the buckle. I had a secure installation with this one as well.
The SafeFit Car Seat Grabber was the next one and I was very interested to see how the installation would go with this one. It’s a thick-ish piece of grippy rubber. I intentionally left the seat belt loose-enough to pinch some belt-because I wanted to see if the rubber would grip the bottom of the car seat and give it a false sense of tightness. I thought it might, but I was surprised at how much it did. I left enough slack in the belt for several inches of movement, but the mat only let the seat move maybe an inch. I did tighten the seat belt to see if it hindered tightening it completely and it didn’t, but this could be dangerous for a parent who doesn’t know that the car seat has to be completely tightened down. I left the Scenera there for a few minutes since it was one of the thicker mats to see if the mat protected the leather from indentations and it did not; there were marks on the leather.
The SafeFit Back Seat Storage with Seat Protector (August 19, 2011: now appears to be made by Brica) was another one I thought was interesting to try because it included an accessory box and who can’t use some organization in the car? This protector is completely different from the Car Seat Grabber: this one is nylon with thin rubberized padding down the middle-back while the Car Seat Grabber is the thick rubber. The mat comes with velcro straps to wrap around the buckle, but the straps aren’t long enough to fit around my plastic-encased buckle stalk (and there’s no buckle cutout). There are some straps spaced about right for attaching to lower LATCH anchors, but my lower anchors are tough to reach and I didn’t feel like hurting my fingers trying to get it attached (yeah, yeah, no pain, no gain, but it was already over 100° in the garage, so I felt like I was getting my workout ). The accessory box attaches with velcro straps to loops on the mat and the box is made of soft padding. I had no problems getting a tight installation on the Seat Protector, but the accessory box was too close to the car seat. I’m sure if I didn’t center the mat under the car seat, the box would have had better placement.
The Kiddopotamus DuoMat is an interesting mat. It has rubber shelf liner on the underside with nylon on top and lined rubber on the top corners. I was able to get a tight installation on the DuoMat, but interestingly, the lined rubber on the corners gave me some concern. While the install was tight at the belt path, the rubber caused the seat to wiggle on the end opposite of the belt path. Yes, I know I’m not supposed to check for movement there. But, the belt path end was up on a noodle and secure. What if it wasn’t? Would the lined rubber corners cause the seat to slip? I installed the seat forward-facing to check. It did indeed slip along the lines molded into the rubber. Perhaps if the rubber was a flat rubber or a nubby rubber, it wouldn’t have slipped.
I’ll admit I’m prejudiced against the Prince Lionheart 2 Stage Seatsaver. I’ve dealt with this seat protector at checkup events and I’ve shown parents that I can’t get a good installation on it. Sometimes they have to see it to believe it. Then they understand. The 2 Stage Seatsaver comes in 2 pieces: a bottom piece and a back piece. I didn’t bother with the back piece, which is to be used with a forward-facing or a booster seat. The bottom piece reminds me of a plastic washing machine pan-the kind that you put under a washing machine that goes upstairs so that when it leaks, it catches the water before it does any damage. The material is very stiff-it comes folded and I considered putting it in the 100°+ sun to get it to lay flat. The underside is lined with nonslip shelf liner. The Scenera slid on the mat as if I had installed it on a flat plastic back seat.
Now on to some seat protectors I had laying around the garage . Years ago, a trusted friend/CPS Tech sent me a Prince Lionheart Original seat protector. It’s simply a piece of rubber about ¼” thick. The Scenera installed easily on the mat and left barely noticeable denting on the leather vehicle seat.
Next was the funky flowered 1970s waterbed sheet my grandmother picked up at a garage sale many years ago. It’s thread-bare so I doubled it over once to make it 2 layers under the car seat. I wanted to see if the car seat would slide around on the sheet. It didn’t: the car seat installed like the sheet wasn’t there but of course, it left dents in the leather.
Finally, I tried the recommended thin towel. I’ve used this towel a lot since we first got our van 4 years ago. I think I paid no more than $4 (perhaps $3.98) for it—it’s a cheap, thin towel. For a fun change, I wrapped the excess towel around the noodle instead of tucking it under the vehicle seat. I was getting punchy from the heat. I assure you, it in no way altered how the seat belt went into the belt path . Just like the sheet installation, the car seat installed like nothing was there.
Vehicle seat protectors will protect vehicle seats from crumbs and the occasional drip from a dropped sippy cup or bottle. They won’t eliminate dents, but may reduce the likelihood of true damage to fragile upholstery. It’s the responsibility of the parent/caregiver to read the car seat instruction manual and see if using some kind of mat or towel is recommended; this information can be found usually up front after the warnings or just before the installation section. Ultimately, the parent/caregiver needs to make sure the car seat is properly installed with less than 1″ of movement at the belt path and if a seat protector is used, I’d personally feel more comfortable with much less than 1″ of movement at the belt path. Seat protectors do add some thickness between car seats and vehicle seats, but if common sense is used, they aren’t the enemy some make them out to be. We’d be better off focusing on making sure harnesses are adjusted and tightened properly, LATCH straps are attached where they are supposed to be, the car seat is installed correctly, and the myriad of other problems we see with car seats on a daily basis.