Instructional Archive

Are You Making These Carseat Mistakes?


MaggieMargeDriveMost parents think, “I got this,” when they look at a carseat. I mean, really, it’s just some straps that go over your kid, right? Everyone who has a kid has to use a carseat, and we all know there are some parents out there barely qualified to have kids in the first place who are able to get from point A to point B and keep their offspring alive, so it’s not rocket science, right? Wrong. Sometimes we make mistakes that we look back on and say, “I can’t believe my child survived my parenting!” It’s a saying in our house that we’re not saving for college; we’re saving for the therapists’ bills, lol. Let’s look at some very common carseat mistakes and see their simple fixes so your offspring can ride safely enough to make it to college… or therapy sessions—whichever way your family sways.

Loose Installation

Whether using the lower LATCH connectors or the seat belt for installation, your carseat moves more than 1” when you give a tug at the belt path. Make sure you tug at the belt path only; that’s the only place where the carseat is connected to the vehicle. If you check for tightness anywhere else on the carseat, it’s going to move more than 1″. There’s nothing holding it to the car there, right?

Let’s define “tug”. A tug is like a firm handshake or a shake on a shoulder that doesn’t move someone’s head back and forth (heh, you don’t want to give them whiplash). You use your non-dominant hand to give this tug so you’re not tempted to shake the rivets out of the seat.

correct incorrect

Can’t Lock the Seat Belt (Loose Installation Corollary)

Sometimes your installation is loose because you can’t figure out how to lock your seat belt to keep it tight on the carseat. Seat belts lock either at the retractor or at the latchplate. All model year 1996 and newer vehicles must have locking seat belts and some vehicles manufactured before 1996 have them as well. The retractor spools up all the length of the belt and is hidden inside the wall of the vehicle or inside the vehicle seat back. At least 90% of all modern vehicles have switchable retractors that can lock the seatbelt to hold a carseat tightly in place.

This is how you test for a switchable retractor: Pull the shoulder belt portion of the seat belt out of the retractor slowly and smoothly until you reach the end and can’t pull it out any further. Then feed a few inches of the belt back into the retractor. You may hear a ratcheting sound as the seatbelt feeds back into the retractor in the locked mode (although some retractors are very quiet most will make a noticeable clicking sound once they are switched into locked mode). Stop after feeding a few inches of the belt back in and try to pull it back out again. If it won’t come back out, it’s locked and now you know that this seat belt has a switchable retractor that you must switch to the locked mode if you are installing a carseat in this seating position.

Other seat belts lock at the latchplate (male end of the seat belt). These are mostly found on Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep vehicles. To see if your seat belt locks in these vehicles, buckle the seat belt and pull up on the lap belt. If it holds tight, your latchplate locks.

lightweight locking latchplate

If you can’t get your seat belt to lock because your car was made before 1996, you have to use either a carseat with a built-in lockoff or a locking clip. If you want to read more about locking clips, you can click here. Lockoffs that are built into certain carseats are much easier to use than a locking clip and worth the extra price. Read about which carseats have lockoffs here.

Loose Harness

Yeah, you can’t just buckle the harness, it has to be snug on the kid or they’ll go flying out of the seat. If you can take a pinch of the harness above the chest clip, the harness is too loose so pull it tighter.

Pinch Test

Chest Clip or Belly Clip?

You know those plastic pieces that clip together across the kid’s middle? That’s called a chest clip. Some carseat manufacturers’ get all uppity and call it a harness retainer clip. Call it what does and where it goes and you’ll never forget! Chest clip. The top of the chest clip is placed at the armpits. Any higher and it’s at the kid’s throat, especially for babies. Any lower and it may not be able to do its job as a pre-crash positioner.

chest clips

Trusting Your Pediatrician for Carseat Advice

Do the initials “CPST” follow your pediatrician’s MD after his name? If not, he’s not qualified to give you carseat advice. Just like I’m not qualified to give you medical advice on your child’s rash (gee, that really does look like Ichthyosis en confetti—you should have that checked out), your ped is not qualified to give you advice on vehicle safety matters. Between charting, keeping up with ever-changing youth medicine, and making hospital rounds, most peds simply don’t have the time to keep up with the dynamic field of child passenger safety unless it’s a special interest. That’s why you come to us for answers on vehicle safety.

Turning Forward Too Soon

You may not admit it online, but turning your wee one forward before age 2 is really dangerous. I’ve heard all the arguments in my 14½ years of tech-ing: my child’s legs hurt because they’re scrunched, my best-friend’s-mother-in-law’s-phlebotomist’s-daughter’s-pediatrician told her to turn her son forward at 9 months because of a risk of hip injury, my child has to be able to see the DVD screen we spent top-dollar for, and so on. The truth is, if you turn your kid forward before age 2, *you’re* the one who is uncomfortable with the idea of rear-facing, not your child. Studies and years of rear-facing children have shown that rear-facing is not only safe, it’s loads safer for kids.

It’s so important to rear-face your toddler that two carseat manufacturers now mandate it, at least for some of their carseat models. Britax requires a 2-year and 25 lbs. minimum on all of their forward-facing harness-2-booster seats. And Dorel, parent company of Cosco, Safety 1st, and Eddie Bauer, says that your kids must be 2 before they can be turned forward-facing in several of their new convertible seats. I’m not pulling your leg—it’s right there in the manual.

NEXT manual

Commercials on TV claim that the best way to start your baby’s life is to use the best diapers or best formula (if you can’t breastfeed, of course). We feel the very best thing you can do for your kid in the child passenger safety world is to use an appropriate carseat or booster on every single ride. After the infant seat is outgrown, continue to rear-face your child until they reach the rear-facing height or weight limit of their convertible carseat. And install the seat tightly. And tighten the harness appropriately. And make sure the chest clip is properly placed. The crazy thing about kids and carseats is that there are so many things that can go wrong with them that we need an entire profession to help parents get it right! I remember making some of these mistakes—and more. Aye yi yi. It’s amazing we’re all still here.

Bicycle Helmets: They’re Not Just for Littles


SchwinnMergeWearing a helmet is a lot like wearing a seatbelt.  It can be inconvenient and even uncomfortable, especially to adults.  According to the Centers for Disease Control, 800 cyclists were killed and half a million had injuries severe enough to go to the emergency room in 2010.  Fortunately, according to the IIHS, helmet use has been estimated to reduce the odds of head injury by 50 percent, but Safe Kids USA estimates that less than half of children 14 and under even wear a helmet.

Bicycle related head injuries send more people to the emergency room than any other sport, more than football, baseball and softball combined!  And it’s not just kids being injured.  The IIHS states, “Eighty-four percent of bicycle deaths are persons 20 and older. During the past few years, no more than 17 percent of fatally injured bicyclists were wearing helmets.”

So, yes, make sure your kids wear a good helmet and make sure it fits them.  And the same goes for football, baseball, softball and skateboards.  The NHTSA has a great page on bicycle safety education with tips and facts. Safe Kids USA has an excellent video on helmet fit for kids, but it applies to adults as well:


Take it from me, the cost of NOT wearing a helmet can be unimaginable.  Based on the statistics, it is just as important to wear one yourself!  This not only sets a good example, but adults in their 40s and 50s are most at risk of dying from head injuries sustained in a bicycle crash.

I’m a survivor of a life threatening sports-related head injury.  When I was 10 years old, I was struck by a thrown baseball that hit me above the eye while running to first base in a back yard game. There was literally a big dent in my head, and the depressed skull fracture required immediate surgery.  I was told that had it struck me an inch in any other direction, I’d probably have died.  A batting helmet would have prevented the injury and the long scar that remains on my forehead, too.  So, it’s not too hard for me to imagine what could happen to my 10-year old son or to me if we don’t wear our bike helmets.

In our next segment, I’ll review a few reasonably priced bike helmets that provide good protection for adults and older kids.  There are also some new options in helmets that may help prevent concussions as well as other traumatic brain injuries.

Borrowing LATCH Anchors



Can You Safely Use Those Center LATCH Anchors?

There are 3 top mistakes we child passenger safety technicians see when we work with parents who want to do latch_symbolwhat’s best and safe with their children’s carseats: a harness that’s too loose, an installation that’s too loose, and a chest clip that’s too low. Following closely in 4th place is using the lower LATCH connectors in the center seating position of the back seat where they can’t be used. Really, any of these mistakes can be put in any order—they’re almost interchangeable given how often we see them.

Hold up, now. You mean I can’t use LATCH in the center seating position?

All passenger vehicles manufactured after September 1, 2002, have lower LATCH anchors (there are exceptions, of course). There are some vehicles that do have a specific set of lower LATCH anchors designed for use in the center position of the back seat, but most vehicles do not. That’s surprising to a large number of parents who rightly feel that the center of the back seat is the safest spot. It’s furthest from side impacts and LATCH generally is the easier method to get a tighter installation. So why is it that lower anchors aren’t available to be used in the center position and why is it that some CPS techs recommend using lower anchors in the middle while some don’t?

The Basics

Lower LATCH anchors consist of 2 U-shaped metal bars welded to a sturdy bar. The anchors are spaced 280 mm apart, which to those of us not used to the metric system measures out to 11” center to center. The lower anchors are a system, designed to be used together because they are all welded together as one big piece. LATCH altogether is a system as well: Lower Anchors and Tethers for CHildren. The Tether referred to in the acronym is on a convertible or combination carseat and is generally used only for forward-facing carseats to hold the top of the carseat in place (some carseats can be tethered rear-facing—that’s a different topic). We never call lower LATCH straps “tethers” but sometimes you’ll see them referred to as “lower connector straps.”

MDX LATCH assembly LATCH_sketch

First let’s discuss the concept of “borrowing.” Just as there are a variety of vehicles with back seats, so are there a variety of configurations for lower LATCH anchors. In all 4-door sedans, there will be 2 sets of lower anchors in the outboard (outside) positions, for a total of 4 lower anchors. You can safely install 2 carseats with those lower anchors. In sedans, trucks, and SUVs with big enough back seats, there will be a third set in the middle. Aha! That’s the key—space. Even though you may have 6 total lower LATCH anchors, you may not be able to install 3 carseats using those anchors. Think about it: the LATCH anchors are spaced 11” across and the narrowest carseats are 17” across. The math simply doesn’t add up. Again, in the widest back seats, you can do it, but you have to remember that LATCH was designed to be a convenience feature; it’s not going to work in all situations. In some vehicles, there may be 5 lower anchors: 2 on each outboard side with 1 randomly stuck somewhere in the middle. What engineer was smoking what when they came up with that design? Well, in this case, you can use lower anchors in the center by using the inside lower anchor from one outboard side with that randomly placed center anchor. The carseat will have an offset installation; that is, it won’t be perfectly in the center. Here’s an example:

2010 Honda CR-V has one dedicated center lower anchor

2010 Honda CR-V has one dedicated center lower anchor that is used with the inboard passenger side lower anchor

2014 Ford Focus has a set of lower anchors for each outboard position

2014 Ford Focus has a set of lower anchors to be used in each outboard position

2011 Acura MDX

2011 Acura MDX has 3 full sets of lower anchors

Can you use lower LATCH anchors to install your carseat in the center of the back seat if there aren’t any dedicated lower anchors in that position? Perhaps. This practice is known as LATCH anchor “borrowing” and you have to consult both your vehicle AND your carseat manual to see if they allow it. If one doesn’t, you can’t. It’s like asking mom if you can eat a piece of candy and she says no, so you ask dad. They both have to say yes. Why? Remember back to that lower anchor spacing of 11”. In a crash, forces are put on both the metal anchors (vehicle) and the plastic belt path (carseat). Because you are now using a spacing that is different than 11” (most likely more, and sometimes over 20”), the crash forces are coming at angles that either haven’t been tested for or have been tested but have failed.

Graco LATCH anchor wording

Graco LATCH anchor wording

Britax LATCH anchor wording

Britax LATCH anchor wording

Some manufacturers have tested for these contingencies and if you’re lucky enough to have a match, you can borrow those LATCH anchors.

2014 Ford Focus Borrowing

What’s a parent to do?

If you want to install your carseat in the center seating position with LATCH and your vehicle manual specifies that you have a set of dedicated lower anchors, go for it! It’ll likely be an easier installation for you. Don’t forget to check the label on the side of the carseat or the carseat manual for any LATCH weight limits, both rear- and forward-facing.

If you don’t have a set of dedicated lower anchors and want to borrow the inside anchors from the outboard positions, check both the vehicle AND carseat manuals to see if both allow it. The verbiage may be subtle (see the Graco manual excerpt), so if you’re unsure, don’t hesitate to call customer service.

If you don’t have specific lower LATCH anchors for the middle seating position, have no worries. A seat belt installation is perfectly acceptable since LATCH is a convenience feature. If, however, you find that you can’t get a tight installation using the seat belt and you can get a better installation with the lower anchors, it’s preferable to move the carseat to the outboard position and use LATCH. An installation where the carseat moves less than 1” trumps the center location of the back seat if you can’t get a tight install there.

Now that you know not to make the #4 mistake of borrowing lower LATCH anchors when you shouldn’t, it’s time to make sure that your child’s harness is snug enough, the chest clip is in the correct location, and the carseat is installed tightly enough. I’ve covered 2 of those mistakes in this article, so if you need a refresher on the others, take a glance at this blog:

The Pinch Test


How do you know if your harness is tight enough? Give it the Pinch Test.

Pinch TestYour child won’t be safe in his carseat unless his harness is snug. The Pinch Test is the accepted method for testing harness tightness.

An outdated method for checking tightness is to stick a finger (or two) under the harness at the shoulder, but because we all have different finger sizes, it can lead to very a loose harness.

It’s never been acceptable to “pinch an inch” of harness for tightness.