I want to begin by saying that I am certain you are doing your very best to keep your babies and children safe in the car. It’s not your fault that carseats are so confusing. I commend you for coming to CarseatBlog for reliable and accurate child passenger safety information. You’re way ahead of the class already!

Below are 5 Pro Tips that all parents and caregivers should know:

1. Rear-face as long as possible. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that toddlers remain rear-facing until at least 2 years old or until they have outgrown their carseat in the rear-facing position. Carseats can be outgrown by weight or height but it is more common for children to outgrow seats by height so that’s something to keep your eye on. Most babies will outgrow a typical infant seat (aka, rear-facing only seat) by height at around 12 months although some will outgrow it before then and some will still fit well past their first birthday.  Whenever you are ready to move your baby to a bigger carseat (you don’t have to wait until it’s outgrown to switch), buy a convertible carseat and install it in the rear-facing position. With frontal crash forces spread out over the entire back of a rear-facing seat, this position does a great job protecting the vulnerable head, neck, and spine. I always joke with parents that I wish I could ride rear facing!

2. Check the angle of the rear-facing carseat.  Understand if, and how, your child’s carseat reclines by reading the instruction manual. Seats that can be used both rear-facing and forward-facing (convertible carseats) usually have specific mechanisms that change the angle of the seat depending on intended use. Make sure you have the carseat configured properly for the direction in which you are installing it. Most rear-facing seats have some type of recline angle indicator. It could be a liquid bubble level, or a window that shows different colors or just a line on the side of the shell. Additionally, some rear-facing seats have 2 recline levels; one for newborns with no head/neck control and one for older babies who prefer to sit more upright and have good head/neck control. Even some forward-facing seats have the ability to recline to different angles depending on weight limits but make sure you understand what is and isn’t allowed.

3. Install with LATCH or seatbelt but not both. All carseats must be attached to the vehicle using either a seatbelt or LATCH connectors but pick one system and don’t double up unless the instruction manual specifically allows that option. Using both LATCH and seatbelt together doesn’t make the installation safer, if it did the instructions would tell you to do that! The carseat should be secured tightly so that when attempting to move the seat or base (with one hand grabbing near the beltpath), it does not move more than 1 inch from side to side or front to back. The most common causes of a wiggly carseat are that 1) parents haven’t mastered the finesse of tightening belts or 2) they don’t understand the locking mechanism for their vehicle’s seatbelt. To learn how the seatbelts in your vehicle lock for the purposes of installing a car seat, look up “Child Restraint” in the index of your vehicle’s owners manual. The most common locking mechanism is the “switchable retractor” which requires you to pull the shoulder belt portion of the seatbelt all the way to the end to engage the locking mechanism. Once your seatbelt has been switched to locking mode, you will usually hear a ratcheting sound as you feed the slack back into the retractor. Every click you hear is cinching the seatbelt tighter. If you have a vehicle older than 1996 you may need to use a locking clip, which you can learn about HERE.

4. Use the harness straps correctly. The 5-point harness of a carseat is not like the straps of a highchair or baby swing, which are designed to keep your child from falling out. A carseat’s harness straps are designed to restrain a child’s small body under severe crash forces. I cannot stress enough the importance of understanding the purpose and mechanics of the harness straps. Clearly, I could write a whole post about this, but for now here are the important guidelines:

  • When the buckle is secured and the chest clip is fastened at armpit level, the straps should be snug. You should not be able to pinch any harness webbing at the collar bone.
  • Harness straps should lie flat and not be twisted; they lose strength and efficacy when twisted.
  • When rear-facing, harness straps should come from the slots or position that are at or slightly below the child’s shoulders.
  • When forward facing, harness straps should come from the slots or position at or slightly above their shoulders.

5. Don’t be in such a hurry to jump off the carseat train. The booster bus is not any easier after the first 2 rides and the novelty has worn off.  Younger kids start squirming around, forget to thread the seatbelt under the armrests and through the top belt guide, etc… In my experience, it is much easier to implement best practices with children in a 5-point harness than it is to do so with a booster. And proper usage is really what makes a child restraint so safe. When it comes to school-age kids (6+), there are debates on the safety benefits of a 5-point harness vs. a booster, but for younger kids the recommendations are clear. The American Academy of Pediatrics has a very reasonable recommendation: use a forward-facing carseat with a 5-point harness for as long as possible, up to the highest weight or height limit allowed by the carseat manufacturer.

With all that out of the way, now we can laugh together about how insanely complicated using carseats can be. I hear you!!! The Child Passenger Safety Technician Certification Course I attended alongside a dozen students was taught in a hotel conference room for 8 hours every day for a week! We read, discussed, watched powerpoint presentations, and practiced on trainers’ cars out in the hot parking lot. After we took written and practical tests on Friday, we were thrust into the community on Saturday to check carseats. I thought after that week I would know everything. But 11 years and 5 kids later, I’m still learning!