11 safety errors many parents accidentally make, from car seat installation to forward-facing too early.
Here is a sobering truth: every day we lose 4 to 5 children in car crashes. They are the leading cause of death for kids in this country and yet most of us are completely untrained in the best way to keep our kids safe from them: by properly installing a car seat. “Across the country we find a greater than 95% misuse of car seats,” says Alisa Baer, M.D., a pediatrician and nationally certified child passenger safety instructor (who’s also known as The Car Seat Lady). But, don’t beat yourself up. What looks like just another piece of shiny, plastic baby gear is actually a sophisticated and complicated piece of safety engineering, and sometimes it takes an engineering degree to use it properly. So we spoke with three car seat safety professionals to find out what we’re doing wrong and how to do it right.
Read the New AAP Car Seat Safety Guidelines to be sure your child has the proper protection.
Mistake #1: Picking the wrong seat for your child’s age, height or weight
“A lot parents try their best, and still can’t figure this out,” says Lorrie Walker, training manager and technical advisor for Safe Kids Worldwide. “Others may be thinking they can stretch an infant seat until they need a booster and save a little money.” But while there is no link between the cost of the car seat and its effectiveness, take the time you need to make sure you have the right seat for your child.
1. Research seats to find one that fits your child’s age, weight and height.
2. Check the manual and measure your child’s growth periodically so you know when it’s time to move on.
3. Follow the new American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines on how long to keep your child rear-facing.
4. Never buy a used seat. There’s no way to know for sure if it has been in an accident, and even seats that have been in the family may be missing parts, or expired. Car seats generally have expiration dates six years after manufacturing.
Mistake #2: Not installing your car seat correctly
Car seat safety professionals will tell you they see a lot of car seats installed incorrectly, and very few done right. The fact is, “the overwhelming majority of car seats are mis-intalled,” says Ben Hoffman, M.D., an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, and a certified child passenger safety technician and instructor. That means most of us are driving around town with seats that could be more dangerous than not using one at all.
The most common mistakes Hoffman, Baer, and Walker see are:
1. Routing seatbelts incorrectly
2. Not putting seatbelts in lock mode
3. Using both the lower anchors of the LATCH system and the seatbelt
4. Connecting the lower anchors and tethers of the LATCH system to the wrong points in the car, especially cargo hooks
5. Forgetting to use the tether at all (See Mistake #6 for more on that)
6. Not putting enough weight on the seat as it is being installed
1. Read BOTH your car seat’s manual and your car’s manual.
2. Decide whether you will use the lower anchors OR a seat belt, and follow the directions for only that method. (The lower anchors are part of the LATCH system, which stands for lower anchors and tethers for children). Once you’ve connected the lower anchor straps, pull the belt tail tightly from the top of the car seat, not the side.
3. If you are using seatbelts, figure out if yours are self-locking (they are required to be in any car made since 1997) and, if they are not, very carefully read how to use either the metal locking clip that came with your seat or the seat belt lock-off (if there is one) built into the car seat.
4. If you are using the lower anchors, make sure you are using the proper anchors for the seat position you have chosen in the car (your car manual will tell you which ones). Many people think their vehicle has lower anchors for the center seat, but most cars don’t. Parents often mistake anchor on the side seats for ones that belong in the center. Make sure to tighten the straps once the clips are locked into place.
5. Know that installing a car seat will take a bit of brute force, so try to put as much of your weight as possible on the seat as you install it. For rear-facing convertibles, try leaning your stomach on the back of the seat; for forward-facing, put both of your knees on the seat and then secure it. With your weight on the seat, wiggle the seat down into the cushion. Many installations are easier when done with two people.
6. When you’re done, hold the seat where the vehicle or LATCH belt is holding it and really give it a good tug. It should move no more than one inch in any direction (side to side or front to back).
7. Keep the instruction manual for the seat in the storage compartment located on the seat (almost all have them). Keep the car manual in your glove compartment so you can always find it.
8. Have a professional check your work, even if you’re pretty sure you did it right.
Mistake #3: Not getting professional help
Sure, you set up the crib just fine, you put together the bouncy seat, why should the car seat be any different? Well, here’s a hypothetical: would you wire your own house for electricity if you were not a trained electrician? If the answer is no, you should think twice about assuming you can correctly install a car seat. A car seat, even if it’s covered in pastel teddy bears, is a serious piece of safety equipment. Just like your car, it has been carefully engineered, based on complex physics and high-speed tests, to keep your child safe in an accident. But if this high-level piece of safety equipment is improperly installed, all of that work goes right out the window.
“There is no reason that any parent should be confident enough in their car seat installation to take a risk on their child’s life,” says Dr. Baer. There’s even less reason to not do it when there are certified technicians all over the country who are easy to find and relatively inexpensive to consult. (Note: Dr. Baer only recommends going to your local police or fire stations, as many parenting books suggest, if they are listed as checkpoints. Go to seatcheck.org to find out.)
Set aside your pride, find the nearest certified technician, and drive your newly-installed seat to them (or bring your seat in its box and have them teach you). Even if they only tweak your installation a little—the average installation has three errors—you can walk away with valuable piece of mind. If they do a complete overhaul on your install job, you will be so grateful they did.
Mistake #4: Fitting the harness incorrectly
Think of your child’s car seat as a parachute that slows her fall and cushions her landing in a crash. If you were to jump from a third-story window (which is the equivalent impact of a 30-mile-an-hour crash) a parachute that is snugly attached to your body will bring you to a stop that is as slow and gentle as possible. The same applies to a harness, which should fit very snugly to your child’s body, but rarely does, because most parents worry about their child’s comfort when they snap them in. “Your parenting instinct tells you it will be better loose,” says Dr. Baer. But making it snug is a much safer choice, and not uncomfortable.
1. The harness should be snug enough “that you can only fit one finger between your child’s collarbone and the harness strap,” says Emily Levine, a nationally certified child passenger safety technician and one of the Car Seat Ladies.
2. The chest clip should be even with the armpits.
3. Children should not be wearing bulky clothes like jackets when they ride in their seat.
4. Do not use any accessories that are not certified for use in car seats, like bundlers, car seat covers that did not come with the seat or head positioners. “The only thing you should add to a car seat is a child,” says Levine.
Mistake #5: Facing your child forward too soon
“What I see most often as a car seat technician is that people definitely turn their kids around prematurely,” says Dr. Hoffman. “I think it’s because in this culture, we are so focused on milestones for young children and the idea that moving from one step to the next is a positive thing. But with child safety, it just is not.” In fact, says Dr. Baer, “rear-facing is 5 times safer for two-year-olds.”
Follow the newly-issued guidelines by the American Academy of Pediatrics that advise parents to keep their toddlers in rear-facing car seats until age 2 or until they exceed the height or weight limit for their car seat, which is typically 20 pounds for an infant seat, and 35 to 40 pounds for a convertible seat. If you started with an infant seat, this may mean transitioning to a convertible seat that can be rear-facing once your child outgrows the infant seat. Levine notes that even if your child’s legs are touching the back seat of the car, or even bending so they’ll fit, it’s not unsafe and not a reason to turn your child around too soon.
Mistake #6: Not using the tether
You know that long strap that always gets stuck in car doors and under your feet when you’re moving your car seat around? That annoying guy is a lifesaver. Intended to be attached to anchors that usually sit behind the headrests (almost all tethers are only used with forward-facing car seats), the tether keeps your little ones head safely within the confines of the seat, yet only 42% of parents use it.
“Using the tether decreases how far the child heads moves forward by four to eight inches with a properly installed car seat,” says Dr. Baer. “That doesn’t sound like much, but it could keep your child’s head from hitting the back of the front seat, the door frame or window in a crash and that’s the key to decreasing your child’s chance of having a brain or spinal cord injury.” With an improperly installed seat, the benefit of the tether is even greater, says Dr. Baer.
All forward-facing car seats (and a few rear-facing too—check your manual) should be tethered to the proper anchor for the car seat’s position in the car. Once again, get out your car seat and car’s manual, and install the tether according to both sets of directions.
Mistake #7: Getting rid of the booster too early
“Most parents move their kids out of a booster seat before their child actually fits in a seat belt properly,” says Levine. And there’s no better place to see this mistake in action than in the carpool. “A lot of parents give in to peer pressure from other parents to take their kids out of the booster,” says Walker, because more kids can fit in a car without them. Kids might also perceive a booster as babyish, and be anxious to sit in the car like a grown-up. Walker warns parents to do the right thing for your child and keep them in the booster until the seat belt fits properly. And since seat belts are designed for people who are at least four feet and nine inches tall, that may not be until your kid is 10 to 12. But a seat belt that doesn’t fit properly can do more harm than good, piercing internal organs, damaging the spinal cord or, if the shoulder strap is improperly fitted, seriously injuring the head.
1. They should pass the 5-Step Test created by SafetyBeltSafe USA.
2. Even if a child is technically big enough, make sure he also has the maturity to stay seated in the belt in a safe way—not slouching, or putting the shoulder portion behind his back.
Mistake #8: Parents not wearing their seat belts
The trunk is finally packed, the kids are buckled in, you’ve gone back twice for things you forgot, you’ve squished yourself into the back seat next to your 3-year-old’s behemoth of a car seat. The driver is asking if you’re finally ready to go. You give the go-head, figuring you’ll buckle in after you’ve rifled through your bag for a snack or grabbed that favorite toy from the back, but then you never do. Sound familiar? Well, it’s common, and it’s a huge danger not just to yourself but to every other person in the car, including the kids you’ve so carefully secured.
“If you have an unbelted person in the backseat, the other people in the car who are belted are two to four times more likely to die in a crash,” says Dr. Baer. And when you look at the physics, it makes sense. A typical 30-mile-an-hour crash may have 20-25 Gs, (G is the force of gravity), which means the weight of a 100-pound person would be magnified 20-25 times. If you were hit by that person, it would be equivalent to being slammed by someone who weighs 2,000 to 2,500 pounds.
Be a good example to your kids, whether you’re riding in the front or back seat. The car doesn’t move until EVERYONE is belted in.
Mistake #9: Not travelling with your car seat
Walk onto an airplane today and you would never know that the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board all recommend that children ride in car seats on airplanes. Instead, most kids are flopping around on seats, squirming on laps or toddling down the aisles. But Baer and her safety colleagues advise that any time a child is in a moving vehicle, they should be strapped into a properly installed car seat. The bonus is that most kids are comfortable in their car seats and more likely to sleep.
And taking your seat along for the flight ensures that on the other end you will have a car seat that is appropriate for your child, and one you know how to install. “Sometimes you show up to the car rental place and all they have left is a booster for your 6-month-old,” says Dr. Baer.
Yes, we know it’s a schlep, but bring your car seat on any trip away from home and consider buying a travel-friendly car seat if your family travels a lot.
Mistake #10: Not using the car seat every time
There are few among us who have not been guilty of once in awhile forgoing the car seat. Maybe someone without a car seat offered you a ride home. Maybe you were trying to squeeze one extra kid into a car that already has two car seats and no room for more. Maybe you said to yourself, “Heck, when I was 4, I was already out of a car seat.” Whatever the reason, whatever the excuse, it should stop now. Why? Because 60% of crashes involving children happen within 10 minutes of home, more than three-quarters of them happen when the speed limit is 45 mph or less, and almost all of them happen when the driver is familiar with the route.
Remember that your kid’s safety is more important than saving a little time, and commit to travelling with them in a car seat every time you drive—or leave the kids at home.
Mistake #11: Letting kids sit in the front seat too soon
You know enough to never use a car seat in the front, but wouldn’t having your big kid up there with you be nice? However conducive it may be to conversation, the front seat is not a safe choice for a child 13 or under, so keep them safely buckled up in the back seat. Should you get into an accident, your child has a smaller chance of hitting the windshield back there. Also, she’ll avoid getting injured by an airbag that inflates rapidly.
Keep kids 13 and under safely buckled in the back seat, no exceptions.