Congratulations! You’ve found the right car seat to keep your kid safe. Now it’s time to get it in the car.
Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as just buckling the seat in place. But getting it right is crucial; in this study, 91 percent of parents of newborns unintentionally made “serious” misuse of their car seats, mostly errors of infant position or installation, and getting it wrong can have serious consequences. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), vehicle crashes are among the leading causes of death in children between the ages of 1 and 13.
When it comes to car seats, each model—and each vehicle—has its own specific installation needs. Whether you’re getting ready to take baby home from the hospital or trying out a new car seat, you should read the installation instructions for both the vehicle and the seat before you attempt to install it, says Gloria Del Castillo, the senior specialist of community engagement for the Buckle Up for Life program at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. Once you’re educated, there are a few other steps you can take to make sure you’re using your car seat properly.
Getting the Right Fit
Not all car seats fit all cars, and vice versa. The type and orientation of the seat will determine how you install it into your vehicle. “Just use the inch test,” says Del Castillo. “If your car seat is installed properly and works with the vehicle, it shouldn’t move more than an inch side to side or forward and back,” she says.
For rear-facing-only seats (e.g., for newborns) and all other seats with a harness, many cars are compatible with the LATCH system (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children), which provides a secure base. Many parents prefer it for peace of mind, but it isn’t always available in every position in the car. For instance, the middle of the back seat may not have lower anchors in that position. In that scenario, you don’t want to try using a tether from the left or right seat, says Lorrie Walker, the training and technical advisor for Safe Kids Buckle Up. You’ll need to either move the car seat to the seating position that has LATCH (check your owner’s manual) or use the seatbelt to secure it. “The seatbelt is the one thing that works in every car in every seating position,” says Walker. Use the seatbelt with a tether for forward-facing seats with a harness, or alone with rear-facing seats.
Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help
NHTSA has very specific instructions on how to install each type of car seat, but sometimes trying it on your own can be intimidating. Fortunately, local certified child passenger safety technicians can happily inspect your installation for free and help you learn the crucial steps to secure your little one; NHTSA has a directory to help you find an inspection station near you. Similarly, classes may be available in your area, like the 88 courses GEICO has sponsored in alignment with the Tucson Medical Center Booster Seat Program since 2015.
Once the car seat is properly installed in the back seat, make sure you know how to put your child in it. For rear-facing seats, it’s important that the harness go through the slot at or below your child’s shoulders. Once you switch the seat to a forward-facing position, the harness should go through the slot at or above the child’s shoulders. Either way, make sure the strap is flat, not twisted, and properly buckled at the chest clip. Buckle Up For Life recommends the “pinch test” to make sure it’s tight enough. If you’re able to pinch any of the straps vertically between your fingers, then you need to tighten it. Another good way to tell, says Del Castillo, is to slide your pinky under the strap. If you can fit any more than that, then the strap needs to be tighter.
Though it may seem intimidating at first, using your car seat properly will become second nature after a while. And look for a model that makes life easier. “The best child safety seat is the one that’s appropriate for the age and weight of your child and convenient enough for you to use it properly every trip,” says Del Castillo.
By Nicole Price Fasig