As the last part of this series on car seats, I want to address the top mistakes that I see being made when it comes to car seats. Some studies indicate that at least 75% of car seats are either used inappropriately or installed incorrectly! So read on to make sure you are in the 25% of parents using those car seats correctly.
Facing the wrong direction
The entire first post in this series was dedicated to this topic (click here to read), but it is worth reiterating again as this is probably the BIGGEST mistake parents make. Keep your kiddos rear-facing until at LEAST 2 years of age to keep them as safe as possible.
Straps too loose
In order for the straps of the car seat to do their job and keep your child nice and secure, those straps need to be snug! Do the pinch test…when your child is buckled into their seat, try to pinch the shoulder belt between your thumb and index finger. If there is enough slack to pinch the belt together, the straps are too loose.
Origin of the shoulder straps in the wrong location
Have you ever looked at your child’s car seat and wondered about those slots on the back where the shoulder belts come through? The origin of the shoulder belts is actually very important when it comes to keeping your child nice and snug in their car seat, but how do you know when to change the position of these belts? If your child is rear-facing, the shoulder belt should originate from the slot just BELOW the top of the shoulder. Once forward-facing, the belts should originate just ABOVE the shoulder.
Wrong location of chest clip
As the name suggests, the chest clip part of the harness system should be located- you guessed it- on the chest. While this may seem silly to even mention, you might be surprised at how many of these clips are either too high or too low. The clip should be even with the armpits or just over the nipple line. If it is too high, it can cause compression on the neck and possibly of the airway. Chest clips that are too low (such as closer to the belly button) could cause serious injury to the organs inside of the abdomen during a crash. Also, if the chest clip to too low, it could allow the shoulder straps to actually come off the shoulders and therefore, not restrain the child properly.
Check the recline
Rear-facing car seats should be reclined to 30-45 degrees depending on the car seat manufacture and the age of the child. If a newborn is too upright, it may cause their head to fall forward which could lead to occlusion of the airway. If reclined too far, the forces in a crash are not distributed evenly across the seat back which can lead to head, neck and back injuries. Rear-facing seats have a recline indicator (usually either a recline knob, coded arrows or a built in level) to help get the seat in the proper position.
Inappropriate use of the LATCH system
Most cars manufactured since September 2002 have the LATCH (lower anchors and tethers for children) system. The LATCH system allows you to “clip” the car seat into two “u-shaped” metal bars that can be found in the space where the seat back and seat cushion meet as well as a tether attachment on the back of the seat. The idea behind the LATCH system is that it should make car seat installation easier. However, there are a few pitfalls you will want to avoid. First, car seats should be installed using EITHER the LATCH system or with the seat belt, but not both. I know this sounds a little strange (why would securing your child’s car seat in two ways be harmful?), but car seats are built to withstand only a certain amount of stress during a crash. During their rigorous crash testing, car seats must meet safety standards with either the seat belt or the LATCH system, but they have not been tested utilizing both measures. By using both a seat belt and the LATCH system, double the stress could be placed on the car seat shell during a crash which could cause a car seat to “fail.” Finally, in 2014, new weight limits for use of the LATCH system were released. For a rear-facing seat, the LATCH system should NOT be used if the child plus the seat weigh more than 65 pounds. For those forward-facing kiddos, forego the LATCH system if your child plus the seat weight more than 69 pounds.
Not using the top tether to stabilize the car seat
The top tether is typically only used for forward-facing car seats to provide extra stability to the top of the seat (check your car seat manual to see if the top tether is recommended in the rear-facing position). In a crash, the top tether will decrease how far a child’s head moves by about 6-8 inches. Check you vehicles owner’s manual to find out where the tether attachment points are located, or you can look for the symbol below.
A seat with too much wiggle
Once you have gotten your car seat installed with either the seat belt or LATCH system, give the seat a good, strong shake. If the seat moves more than 1 inch, it is not tight enough. In order to get your child’s car seat nice and tight, put your weight into it…literally, climb into the car seat or place your knee with your body weight into the car seat and then tighten those straps. The less the car seat moves, the less likely it is going to move in a crash.
Check your airbags
This one applies mainly for those who do not have a back seat in their car, and children are therefore riding in the front seat (when possible, children should remain in the back seat until AT LEAST 12 years of age). If you have a car seat in the passenger seat of your car (especially if it is a rear-facing infant seat), make 100% sure that the airbag is turned OFF. Airbag deployment with a child in the front seat can be absolutely devastating.
Car seats expire
Just like foods and medications, car seats expire too. Think about what your child’s car seat has to endure (especially down here in the South)…baking inside your car during the summer months where outside temperatures exceed 100 degrees. Over time the plastic will become brittle which could lead to weakness during a crash. The expiration date can typically be found either stamped into the plastic of the car seat or on a sticker with the specific model information.
As you can see, there are a lot of pitfalls along the way when it comes to correctly using and installing your child’s car seat. I encourage all parents to have their car seat inspected by a certified car seat technician to ensure that your children are getting as much protection as possible from their car seat. You can click here to find a car seat inspection site near you.