I know, I’m on a bit of a car seat run here, but just bear with me, this is the last car seat post for a while and it’s an important one.
I am not writing this to shame anyone, in fact, the truth is that I made nearly all of these mistakes before I knew better and I have the picture evidence to prove it. As parents, we all try our hardest to do what’s right and keep our children safe, but we’re human and we make mistakes. And in the case of car seat safety, the mistakes can have pretty significant ramifications.
Since realizing the error of my ways, I’ve made a conscious effort to be more informed, and so, without judgment, these are nine mistakes to watch out for to make sure your children are as safe as possible in their car seats.
1. Using aftermarket products.
One of the things I hated most about Eli’s infant seat was how tight it was around his neck. In order to get the straps tight enough (more on that in a second), he would have marks that lasted for hours. So I did what many parents do, I bought a set of strap covers. I think on some level I knew that they weren’t supposed to be used, but I never realized that they could compromise his safety. All car seats are safety tested in their original form and all after market products, including head supports, strap covers, blankets that go under the straps and even heavy coats, jeopardize the safety of the seat. With Eli’s strap covers, I wasn’t getting his harness nearly as tight as I needed to be. If it doesn’t come with the seat, it doesn’t belong on it, period. (See also: no pacifier clip on the straps… oops.)
For more information about aftermarket products, see CSFTL.org.
2. Incorrect LATCH usage.
I did some reading about car seats before installing our first one and learned that one of the great new things was the LATCH system. I was so excited to use the easy installation system for Eli’s car seat and thought it would be safer than the seatbelt. I got Eli’s seat all set up in the middle of my backseat and then did a quick Google search because I wanted to find out whether the car seat could touch the front seat and that’s when I learned that my car doesn’t allow the LATCH to be used in the middle seat. It has to do with the spacing of the anchors, they’re supposed to be a set distance apart and in my car, “borrowing” or using the outboard anchors to install the car seat in the middle doesn’t allow the right distance and therefore makes the install unsafe. Most cars are this way, so it’s critical that you check your owner’s manual before you do a middle seat LATCH installation. The seatbelt install is often more difficult than the latch, but it is absolutely as safe when done correctly. And importantly, using LATCH and the seatbelt together is actually less safe than using one or the other, because the seat has to move somewhat in an accident and this over-tightens the seat.
For more information on LATCH usage, see the Car Seat Lady’s excellent explanation.
3. Not getting the seat tight enough.
When we first installed Eli’s infant seat, we got the seatbelt pretty tight. I mean, it budged a little, but we thought we had a good tight installation. It wasn’t until several weeks later that we learned about the 1 inch rule. In order for a car seat to be properly installed there should be no more than one inch of movement at the back of the seat, either side to side or forward to back. The front of the seat will move a bit, it’s part of how the seat can absorb energy in a crash, but if you’re not getting a good tight install, try leaning into the seat a bit and then tightening up the seatbelt or latch.
For more information, see your car seat’s owner’s manual!
4. Turning it around too soon.
I’m not going to beat this dead horse because I wrote a whole post about it here, but please consider keep your babies rear facing until age two.
5. Straps too high or too low.
Eli started out in a Snugride 35 and honestly, I never even checked to see where his shoulders were in the seat because, well, it was an infant seat and he was an infant, so surely he fit. I remember at one point deciding we needed to move the straps up (I’m really not sure why) and I checked the manual which said that the straps should be at or below his shoulders. When I moved them up, they were slightly above and I kind of shrugged and thought, oh well. And now I cringe at my carelessness. Rear facing seats should have the straps that come out of the seat at or below the height of the shoulders and forward facing seats should have the straps coming out at or above. Seat belts for kids in boosters (or just sitting in a seat) should go across the thighs, not across the belly and should not touch the neck. Check your manual for specifics, and don’t ignore the rules like I did.
6. Straps too loose.
Prior to bringing Eli home from the hospital I read an article about how to use car seats correctly and it said to make sure that there is room to slide two fingers under the chest clip. I thought it was a little loose when I did that, but I stuck with it. It was only a few weeks ago that I learned that this was an outdated recommendation and instead you should do the “pinch” test. According to the Britax Facebook page (which did an awesome job explaining this), “to tell if your child’s harness is tight enough, perform the simple “pinch test.” Basically, secure your child in the car seat and buckle the harness as usual. Using your thumb and pointer finger, try to pinch one of the harness straps at your child’s collarbone level. If you’re able to pinch the strap, the harness is not tight enough. You should not be able to pinch any excess webbing.
7. Chest clip in the wrong spot.
Looking back on pictures of Eli when he was tiny, I cringe at the position of his chest clip. I was never an egregious belly clipper, but there are definitely plenty of pictures, like the one above, where yea, that isn’t in the right place. The chest clip, as its name suggests, should go on the chest and it should be level with the armpits.
For more information, see CSFTL.org’s explanation.
8. Changing car seats too soon or too late.
Many parents are anxious to move to the next stage of car seats, from rear facing to forward facing, from forward facing in a five point harness to a booster, then to nothing, but this is one of those times where taking your time is a good thing. Moving a child to a booster with a seat belt too soon can be dangerous, especially if they’re not ready. Check out the 5 step test that is recommended before moving a kid out of a booster.
And at the same time, be careful with height and weight limits on your seats and make sure you’re not keeping your child in a seat that is too small to keep them safe.
For more information, consult your owner’s manual for height and weight restrictions on your seat(s).
9. Using expired or used seats.
I know it sounds crazy that a car seat can expire, but it’s true and it’s important. The plastic degrades over time, so though it may seem like a car seat manufacturer strategy to get more money from you, what they’re really doing is protecting your kids (okay fine, and themselves) and making sure that their seats perform the way they should in an accident. And speaking of accidents, if you’re in one, check your manual, you will most likely need to replace your seat. And many insurance companies will argue with you, but they aren’t the car seat experts and such decisions should be made by the car seat company and covered, when necessary, by the car insurance.
For more information check out the Car Seat Lady’s explanation of expired and used car seats.
Disclaimer: I am not a Child Passenger Safety Technician and do not pretend to be one. I have provided sources for more information on all of these topics and whenever in doubt, contact your car manufacturer, car seat manufacturer or a Safe Kids certified CPST for more information.