In this country, one of the very first things that the nurses do after the baby is out, clean, and dry, is inquire about your baby’s car seat.
And unless you live within wheelchair pushing distance of the hospital or have a homebirth, your baby will take their first car ride home from the hospital in their carefully inspected car seat, approved by nurses and diligently checked by parents before embarking on the most terrifying-feeling drive that most parents ever take – that first drive with their fragile infant.
We start off so well. But along the way we get sloppy. Car seats need to be removed and re-installed in different cars, the baby outgrows that first little seat and needs to move up to the convertible car seat, moms and dads have to hastily buckle a screaming toddler in before they sprint across a crowded parking lot.
In all that, there’s a lot of room for mistakes to happen, so here’s just a gentle reminder about common mistakes to watch out for when putting your child in their car seat.
1. Not Installing The Seat Tight Enough
This is a biggie, and one of the most common.
I think the trouble is when parents are trying to install the car seat under a time crunch, they get it buckled and figure that it’s good enough. Nope.
Put your knee in the seat, push down with your full weight, and tighten the seat belt or LATCH strap until there’s no more slack to pull.
If the seat belt won’t stay tight, there should be a metal clip that came with the car seat that you can slide over the belt, and it will hold everything in place.
The car seat should not wiggle from side to side or front to back by more than an inch by the time it’s installed, and should be at the proper angle for your baby.
2. Using Both The LATCH Strap And The Seat Belt
I get it. If one is good, both should be better, right? It seems logical, but can actually be a problem.
The car seats are tested with one restraint, and adding a second restraint can cause unexpected strain on the seat in case of a crash.
Use either the LATCH system or the seat belt, but not both together.
3. Using The LATCH Strap After Your Child Reaches The Weight Limit
All good things must end, and the ease of using a LATCH tether is one of them.
Your car seat has a weight limit listed on the LATCH tether – when your child’s weight PLUS the weight of the seat itself exceed the LATCH limit, it’s time to switch to just the seat belt.
4. Harness Straps Too Loose/Wrong Height
As your little one gets bigger, sometimes it’s hard to keep up with keeping the straps at the right height and right “tightness”.
I know it’s a pain to re-thread those straps through the next highest slot every few months, but it’s important to keep your baby safe!
Remember – the straps should be tight enough that you can’t pinch them with your fingers – if you can pinch, tighten them.
A rear facing seat should have the shoulder straps start BELOW the shoulders, a front facing seat should have the shoulder straps start ABOVE the shoulders.
5. Straps Or Seat Belt Are Twisted
OK, this should be obvious, but if the straps are twisted they can hurt your baby and not protect them. Take a few minutes and make sure the straps are straight.
6. Chest Clip Is Too Low
The chest clip should be at armpit/nipple level – if it’s too low, the baby can slip through and flop forward during a crash. Remember – it’s not a belly clip!
7. Wearing A Coat In The Car Seat
I admit, I’m occasionally guilty here.
In the winter, it seems heartless to take your little one’s coat off to settle them into a frigid car seat.
But a puffy winter coat can compress in the event of a crash, allowing your baby to slip right out while leaving the coat behind.
Try to pre-heat the car, stick a hot pack in the seat and take it back out before buckling in your baby, and use a blanket over the seat, but don’t buckle up with a puffy coat!
8. Turning The Seat To Front-Facing Too Early
It can be so crowded in that back seat.
You can’t see your child’s face in the rear view mirror, their legs seem so bunched up, and you’re a mite tired of not being able to adjust the front seat for fear you’ll knock the gigantic convertible seat out of place.
The baby is already almost 2 – why not turn them around now?
In short, because they are orders of magnitude safer facing rear in a crash.
If you are in a crash and baby is facing front, their head can flop forward to such a degree that gruesome injuries like internal decapitation can occur.
If they’re rear facing, the seat absorbs all that strain.
I know they look cramped, but little kids are fine sitting cross-legged – in fact, it can be more comfortable than letting their legs dangle the way they would front facing.
Keep them rear facing as long as your car seat weight limit allows – you’ll be keeping them safer.
9. Using The Wrong Size Seat For Your Child
Sometimes it’s moving up too soon to a booster, sometimes it’s staying too long in an infant seat.
Whatever the case, please try to use the appropriate size car seat for their height and weight – not just age.
I’ve seen moms using an infant seat for too long, partly because the toddler seats are pricey, partly because the infant seats are nice to lift in and out of the car.
If a baby is too tall or too heavy, they MUST move up to a rear facing toddler seat.
In my state, 4 years old is the age when a child can legally move up to a booster seat, but some children simply aren’t tall or heavy enough to make the switch.
Keep them in the convertible seat as long as it fits, even if it takes up more space in the car.
10. Using Added Padding In The Car Seat
This is a big one for infant seats – there are these lovely products called Snuggle Nests that have a fleece lining that lays in the seat, with a zipper cover that goes over the baby once they’re buckled.
The trouble is those Snuggle Nests are designed for STROLLER seats, not car seats.
Car seats are not designed or tested with the extra padding, and it might let the baby slide around and not be properly restrained.
Most car seats come with a “head noodle” pad that helps the baby’s head stay in place – those are fine, as long as they came with the seat, because they were designed to work together.
We’re all trying to do the best we can with these kids, right? Just keep these little things in mind to help keep your baby safe.
After all, I’m sure none of you are buckling an infant seat front facing (seen it), buckling a 6 year old into an infant seat (seen it) or driving around town with your toddler on your lap because they have a fit when buckled in (seen it). Buckle up every time – and while you’re at it, set a good example and buckle up yourself!