By now we all know that talking on the phone while driving poses a great distraction. But did you know there’s something even more distracting, and you probably do it all the time?
An Australian study found that driving with children in the car is twelve times more distracting than using a cell phone while driving.
When you think about it, that’s not surprising. Besides the normal conversation that children engage us in, there’s also crying, yelling, nagging, whining, bickering, singing annoying songs, and endless games of I-spy. And those are just the audible components.
Add to it the toy-dropping, punching of siblings, and frantic waving of hands for no particular reason. Then add in the help opening the snack package, the handing-back of the snack package, and then your desperate contortions as you try to retrieve the empty packet before your child dumps the crumbs all over his or her car seat.
Those kids are kind of distracting, aren’t they?
The study found that during a 16-minute trip, parents’ eyes were off the road for almost 3.5 minutes, mainly from glancing in the rear-view mirror at their kids. Some even positioned the mirror to focus on their children rather than on the cars behind them.
I felt very smug reading the study and some articles about it. I hardly ever look back at my kids. Maybe I’m lucky in that they’re generally pretty well behaved in the car, or maybe I’m just really good at ignoring them, but that aspect just isn’t an issue for me.
They’re also at ages now where I can pretty much rely on them to hold onto their trash, and they know that if they drop a toy, they’re out of luck. Reaching for a dropped item is something I will not ever, ever do while I’m driving.
But then there’s the part about conversation…and I’m guilty of that one. Just as with the other party in a cell phone conversation, kids aren’t usually aware of what’s going on outside the car. They have constant comments and questions that need answering, and not always at the best times. I remember recently when I was trying to explain the history of child labor laws to an inquisitive 5-year-old while also navigating a tricky highway interchange. When things get too intense or distracting, I do sometimes tell my kids to wait a minute, then get back to them once I’m done backing out or merging or whatever I was doing.
One conclusion made by the researchers (that likely won’t come as a surprise to readers of this blog) is that properly restraining children probably leads to less distraction by the parents. This particular study showed that the children involved were incorrectly positioned 70% of the time, which could certainly lead to a need for increased attention by the parents. Chalk up another benefit to child restraints: Besides protecting kids in a crash, they can help prevent them in the first place.
Every few years, HealthyStuff.org evaluates car seats based on the presence of flame retardants and certain heavy metals. They just came out with a new report, and you might be concerned about the findings. Let’s talk about what this all means.
First, let me say that I’m concerned about flame retardants, too. Some people brush it off as hippie-helicopter-parents-flipping-out-over-something-harmless. But some of the chemicals found in car seats have known detrimental effects, some have suspected detrimental effects, and at least one is slated to be phased out of use under the Stockholm Convention (a global treaty signed by over 150 countries who have vowed to reduce persistent organic pollutants).
I’ve written otherposts about flame retardants for CarseatBlog, and I’m concerned about my own children’s exposure, so I’m not here to tell you the study doesn’t matter or should be ignored. But I’m not going to tell you to panic and throw away your seats, either.
This current study from HealthyStuff appears to be more thorough in some ways than past ones. This study looked for the presence of brominated, chlorinated, and phosphate-based flame retardants. They show which retardants were present in which seats, and they show the potential hazards of each of those compounds.
They do a much better job than in the past of explaining how these chemicals can enter a child’s body: through dermal (skin) contact, inhalation, or ingestion. The organization also provides a better explanation of their methodology and how they weighted the results to come up with their rankings.
Here are some things to keep in mind when looking at the rankings.
All car seats must meet federal flammability standards. The flammability standard is harsh, and there’s no way to meet the standard without the use of some kind of chemical flame retardant.
We don’t know the risks of all chemicals. We know that some are worse than others, but because fire retardants are largely unregulated, it often takes years before they’re fully tested and their impacts fully understood. A chemical that seems great now might turn out to be hazardous later. That means that we don’t necessarily know how “good” a seat with a “good” ranking really is. We also don’t know if a seat with a “bad” rating is really any worse. Especially because:
There’s no way to know how “safe” or how “dangerous” a car seat is. Even the FAQs on HealthyStuff.org’s report states:
HealthyStuff.org ratings do not provide a measure of health risk or chemical exposure associated with any individual product, or any individual element or related chemical. HealthyStuff.org ratings provide only a relative measure of high, medium, and low levels of concern for several hazardous chemicals or chemical elements in an individual product in comparison to criteria established by our research team and informed by published research studies.
We don’t know how—or even if—these car seats’ chemicals are having an actual impact on kids.
Not all seats were tested. HealthyStuff.org only tested 15 seats. There are a lot of seats that weren’t tested at all. Of the ones that were, we only have data for those particular samples. It’s possible that a company could switch vendors for certain components, meaning that foam that tested poorly (or well) might not even be used in other, seemingly identical seats manufactured at a different time. Basically: there’s just a lot we don’t know.
Car seats save lives. It’s okay to be concerned about chemicals in your children’s car seats, but it doesn’t mean the car seat itself is a bad thing. Just the opposite: It’s absolutely necessary and crucial. The chemicals in flame retardants pose a potential risk. Car crashes are a known, real, happening-everyday risk, and are a leading cause of death in children. Properly using an appropriate car seat is one of the best defenses against injury and death. Hands down.
With all that said, what can you do if you’re still concerned about potentially dangerous chemicals in your seats?
Don’t leave children in seats longer than necessary. For many reasons, car seats should be for the car, not for lounging or sleeping outside the car for long periods of time. Children left in car seats outside the car are at greater risk for other hazards, too, such as airway obstruction, falls, and strangulation.
Clean the cover. The cover isn’t the only part of the seat that contains fire retardants, but it’s the part in most direct contact with your child. Wash it (according to manufacturer instructions) to remove any excess chemicals. Remember that aftermarket covers and products are not recommended because they can interfere with the straps and with the ability to properly tighten the harness.
Avoid excess heat. This is sometimes easier said than done, especially during hot summer months, but heat can cause a greater dissipation of flame retardant chemicals. Park your car in the shade, crack windows, use sun shades, and air out the car before you get in it.
Vacuum regularly. Flame retardants can gather in dust, so vacuum out your car and your child’s car seat regularly.
Contact car seat manufacturers to express your concerns. Public pressure leads to results. Some companies have already abandoned the more-concerning chlorinated and brominated fire retardants in favor of the (seemingly and hopefully) less-concerning halogen-free phosphates. If some companies have done it, all of them can.
If, after all this, you’re still panicking over your particular seat, then by all means get a new one. I don’t think it’s necessary, though.
Remember, I don’t take this topic lightly at all, but guess what seat my youngest child is currently riding in? I won’t name names, but it’s among the seats listed as a “highest concern.” I’m not switching him out of it, though. For one, I have no way of knowing whether his particular seat has the same components as the one tested (nor do I know how any new seat I’d get him would compare to the samples they used). I do clean the seat regularly, and we try to keep windows cracked in the summer as long as there’s no threat of rain. I do my best to mitigate his exposure by avoiding flame retardants in other areas, especially in our mattresses and bedding, where my child currently spends about half his life.
I will definitely contact the manufacturer to encourage them to remove brominated fire retardants from all their products, but in the meantime I’m not going to sacrifice the seat in question, which fits well in my car, fits my child well, and is easy to use correctly each and every time.
I remember this one time when I was about six years old, my mom and some other parents were driving a big group of kids to swimming lessons at the YMCA. I didn’t know most of the kids—I think they were actually part of an after-school program at my friend’s school—but I remember that I sat in the back seat next to a big girl, who for some reason I remember was named Pam.
My mom told everyone to buckle their seatbelts, and Pam said, “I’m 13, so I don’t need to wear a seatbelt.” I was shocked that some other kid would a) not wear a seatbelt, and b) would talk back to my mom, but my mom handled it well. She said, “Well, I’m an adult and I wear one, so you will, too.”
I give my mom credit for being ahead of the curve (this was 30 years ago, after all, when it was common for kids to bounce around in cars, completely unrestrained). Times have changed a lot, in regard to car seats, booster seats, and universal seatbelt use, but all of us advocates know there’s still work to do.
Recently NHTSA launched a new campaign to help educate tweens (kids 8-14) and their parents about the importance of buckling up in the car. NHTSA found that as kids get older, they’re less likely to buckle up. During the past five years, half of children 8-14 years old who died in car crashes were unrestrained.
Reasons for this include a natural inclination to test boundaries, busy schedules (rushing to after-school activities), and peer pressure. Kids this age are typically responsible for their own buckling (as opposed to younger children in harnessed seats), so parents rely on their kids to get it right, and might not notice when they don’t. There are also still misconceptions about the importance of buckling up on every trip, Many people (kids and adults) think that short, familiar trips don’t require seatbelts. There’s also still a somewhat prevalent (and flawed) idea that people in the back seat don’t need seatbelts, so some parents might know their tweens aren’t buckling up but don’t see anything wrong with it.
It’s also important to remember that not all tweens are ready for the seatbelt alone. Until kids fit properly in the belt (usually not until between 8-12 years old, or when they’re about 4’9″…though it varies) kids still need booster seats. That not only improves safety, but also improves comfort. A 9-year-old with a shoulder belt across her neck is likely to put it behind her back instead, or might skip the seatbelt all together. See this post for more information on determining when kids are ready to ride without a booster seat.
So how can parents encourage seat belt usage in their tweens? Here are some tips from NHTSA and us:
Demonstrate seatbelt use: If parents don’t buckle up, their kids are less likely to.
Refuse to move: Sometimes when toddlers unbuckle their harness, we recommend parents tell them the car can’t move unless everyone is buckled. Do the same thing with tweens. They might know the car is physically capable of going, but that doesn’t mean you have to let it.
Offer an incentive: As soon as they’re buckled, they can have their video game, music, book, whatever. This also helps keep distraction to a minimum. A kid in the middle of a Minecraft game on his iPad might be too enthralled to stop for a few seconds and put the seatbelt on, so don’t let him have the game until he’s in securely.
Give them cold, hard facts: Kids this age are at a point where they can understand statistics better than smaller kids, so throw some (statistics, not smaller kids) at them. Tell them that most fatal crashes occur less than 25 miles from home, and at less than 40 mph.
Check on them: Take a glance back in the rear-view mirror, or turn around and make sure they really are buckled, and that the seatbelt is positioned properly.
Make them responsible: Remember (and remind them) that these kids will be driving themselves in just a couple years. Tell them that part of earning their license is proving that they can be safe and responsible in the car, and that includes buckling up on every drive, every time.
Awwww. You’ve already had one kid and found that you did a pretty good job the first time around so you thought you’d try again. Maybe it was around that magical 15-18 month age when those little monsters are at their cutest. Buggers! I’m convinced that’s how the human race has continued for so long. It’s certainly not because of proper carseat usage.
During those first many months of our children’s lives, they suck the life out of us quite literally. We get virtually no sleep, sometimes don’t eat, definitely don’t shower occasionally due to loud demands forced upon us, and touch things we swore when we were childless that we would never touch. During this time, parents, and moms especially, lose brain cells due to the lack of sleep, constant touching, and demands from their little offspring. I’m sure there are studies that prove this, but years after having my children, I’m still making up the sleep and too busy trying to recover my lost brain cells to find . . . oh right, the studies.
Anyway, if you were like most parents, you probably used an infant seat for your first baby because that’s what you do for your first baby, right? Not necessarily, but it is a convenience feature for sure. Depending on the infant seat, there were adjustments you made as your baby grew. If you are using this infant seat again for your second, or third child, there are a few things you need to do to “reset” the infant seat so it’s ready for a newborn again and so you don’t ring me because the infant seat that fit your first bundle of joy so perfectly doesn’t fit your second at all and you’re panicking and befuddled.
First, if the seat has been in storage, thoroughly check it for mold and mildew. It’s gross to think about, but this is very common in many environments, especially if the seat has been stored in a basement or in a bag. You probably won’t believe me if I told you we have a black mold problem here in the desert where the humidity is less than 10% with a dew point of less than 20˚? It’s everywhere. If your seat has mold or mildew, it’s probably better to say goodbye to it. The only way to clean the mold is to use harsh chemicals, exactly what *all* carseat manufacturers tell you not to use, even on the plastic shell, and especially not on the harness. If it’s only the cover or harness that has mildew, you can order a new cover and harness from the manufacturer generally (some harnesses aren’t replaceable), but by the time you add up how much that costs, sometimes it’s about the same to buy a new seat. For recommendations, see our Recommended Carseats List.
Side note: If you’re borrowing a used infant seat, make sure you trust the person you’re borrowing the seat from with your child’s life. This is a safety item that has the potential to save your child’s life, remember. Ask them if it’s been in any kind of a crash, even a parking lot fender-bender (many manufacturers want their seats replaced after *any* kind of crash and don’t specify severity). Ask how they’ve cleaned the seat—did they follow the directions in the manual or did they throw everything in the washer? Harnesses should only be wiped down with a washcloth and NEVER washed in the washing machine.
With today’s infant seats going to such high weight limits, your first child may have been in the carseat until he was a toddler. That means the harness was last adjusted to fit him as a toddler, not as a newborn. You’ll want to change the harness slot height back so that the harness is in the lowest slots. The harness of a rear-facing carseat should always be coming from the slots below the child’s shoulders. There’s an easy way to remember this if your kids are facing different directions in the car. A rear-facing child has the harness coming from at or below the shoulders, a forward-facing child has the harness coming from at or above the shoulders—they’re opposites of each other.
*Note that the video shows changing the harness height for seats with front-pull harness adjusters only. If your model has rear adjusters, read your owner’s manual because the method will vary by seat.
Some infant seats also have different lengths for the harnesses to accommodate wide weight ranges, from noobs to toddlers. If you look at each end of the harness where it attaches on the back of the seat to the metal splitter plate, there’s a loop that hooks onto the splitter plate. Some seats have a second loop a couple of inches up on the harness that makes the harness shorter for newborns. If your carseat has that second loop, detach the harness from the splitter plate and reattach it to the second loop to make the harness shorter. You WILL need to know whether the excess strap length goes in front of the splitter plate or behind it and in which harness slots you can use those second loops, so crack open that manual or find it online at the manufacturer’s website because the placement does matter.
I bet you’re thinking to yourself, “I have the harness taken apart, I’m gonna wash this sucker because, boy, it sure looks nastier than I remember it being the last time we used it.” And it’s true! Baby things have a way of producing their own stains over time. And their own Cheerios. It’s some kind of natural law. You can probably get away with throwing the cover in the washing machine on the handwash cycle, but don’t leave me a nasty comment if it falls apart 😉 . You know the drill: consult your manual. Roll it up tight in an absorbent towel then hang it to dry or put it in the dryer if your owner’s manual allows. If your harness is removable and you have a new-fangled phone that takes insta-photographs, pop a couple of photos of how the harness looks before you tear it off the seat so you can remember how to put it back together. Never submerge the harness in water; it’s best to clean with a damp washcloth. If it’s extra nasty, wet a toothbrush with water and go after the spitup that way, then wipe down. You might could (oh darn! there’s that 3 years of living in the South coming back to me) put a drop of mild soap, like Dreft or Ivory or Dawn, on the washcloth, but then you’d have to wipe it down a million times to get it off. What a pain.
Don’t forget that carseats have a lifespan, just like you. It’s not some ploy to get you to toss money at the manufacturers. Plastics break down over time (just like your knees) and each manufacturer uses their own proprietary mix of plastics that determines the lifespan of each carseat they make. Cut back on the fancy clothes your child wears, not the safety items she uses if money is an issue. Look at the label that has the date of manufacture and the model number on it. Sometimes it will have the expiration date on it. Other times the expiration date is stamped into the plastic shell.
So there you have it: how to reset your infant seat for newborn use. I have to be honest. If you’re not an infant seat user, you can apply all these techniques to a rear-facing convertible seat as well, but most people do use infant seats for their first babes at least, so that makes them pretty popular items to have around (and to borrow). Now, go forth and use that infant seat safely!