Most expectant parents spend countless hours making sure everything for the new baby is just right. They paint the nursery, pick coordinating crib sets, pour over catalogs and roam stores looking for the perfect coming-home outfit, type up their birth plan, and debate names for weeks.
Yet as soon as these parents put their baby in the car for the first time, almost all of them make at least one critical mistake. Car seat advocates and experts have known this for a long time, but a new study by the American Academy of Pediatrics is highlighting it again: Almost all car seats are installed and/or used incorrectly.
After checking the usage of more than 250 families being discharged from a hospital in Oregon, researchers found that 93% of them made a serious error with their car seats. Nearly 70% left the harness too loose, and 43% didn’t install the seat tight enough. Thirty-six percent had a seat adjusted to an incorrect angle, and 34% positioned the chest clip too low. Other misuse included having the harness straps in the wrong position and using unapproved after-market products.
Why do doting new parents misuse seats like this? That’s a question safety advocates have asked for a long time. Usually it’s not because they don’t care; it’s because they don’t know.
Many parents fail to read the manual that comes with their car seat. I know manuals can be tedious and boring, but when it comes to a piece of safety equipment, it’s necessary. Just do it!
Another reason is that car seats are confusing. If they were easy, we wouldn’t need to have certified technicians to help people with their seats. Again, much of the confusion can be cleared up by reading the manual, but even that can’t solve everything. Car seats often need to be demonstrated, not just talked about on paper.
Finally, a lot of people just don’t understand crash dynamics. Most people have never been in a serious or even moderate crash. They don’t understand how strong crash forces can be, and what kind of effect they can have on a human being—especially a tiny one. It’s certainly not something I had thought about until I became involved in child passenger safety, and even now it’s sometimes hard to wrap my head around. Many parents just don’t understand the lifesaving role a car seat can provide, and how that safety can be compromised by not using them correctly.
How can new parents be better prepared? Here are some tips to help reduce the most common mistakes.
- Read the manual! Really.
- For rear-facing seats, the harness should be at or below the child’s shoulders—not above.
- Tighten the harness so you can’t pinch any webbing between your fingers at the collarbone. On most seats, you’ll want to pull up excess slack from the hip area before tightening.
- The chest clip should be level with the baby’s armpits. That puts the clip over the strongest part of the baby’s torso—not on the neck, and not on the tummy.
- Install the seat with the seatbelt OR lower anchors, not both (unless your seat and vehicle both explicitly allow it, which is rare).
- If you use lower anchors (LATCH) make sure the position in the car allows for it. Most vehicles don’t have dedicated LATCH anchors in the center seating position, and most don’t allow for borrowing outboard anchors for use in the middle (check your manuals).
- Check to make sure your seat is installed tightly enough. Use your non-dominant hand to give a firm tug where the seatbelt or LATCH strap goes through. As long as the seat moves less than an inch, the installation is tight. It’s important to check for movement ONLY at the belt path. Checking at the top of the seat will make the installation seem looser than it is, and will probably wind up loosening up an otherwise good installation.
- Check the side of your seat to make sure the angle is correct for a newborn. Some seats have a line that needs to be level to the ground, while others have indicators that include balls, bubbles, or colored disks that show how reclined the seat is. For newborns, the seat should be at or close to the maximum allowed recline.
- If you’re using a rear-facing-only or infant seat, make sure the handle is in an allowed position in the car. Some seats require the handle to be up, some require it to be down, and some allow any position, so read the manual to find out what’s allowed on your seats.
- Don’t use aftermarket accessories unless they’re specifically approved by the car seat manufacturer. Also, don’t attach hard or heavy toys to the handle of the seat while it’s in the car.
- Don’t swaddle your baby or use heavy jackets or snowsuits in the car. Check our tips for winter weather to learn more.
- Make an appointment with a certified Child Passenger Safety Technician before your child is born. A good technician will teach you to install and use your seat properly. A list of CPSTs can be found here, and car-seat.org also maintains a list of techs among its members.
- Read the manual!
If you’re expecting, you’re probably doing everything you can to make sure your baby enters the world as safely as possible. Don’t skimp on safety once he or she is out of the womb.