Learn more: The Car Seats Group
Are you properly securing your child into their car seat? The vast majority of parents are not, and most of them are not aware of it.
Below is a comprehensive list of some of the most common errors parents make when installing their child's car seat or buckling their child into it. Motor vehicle crashes are a leading cause of injury and death to babies and young children, so it is vital that parents do all they can to make car trips as safe as possible. If you need help to remedy any of these issues or are unsure of how to fix them on your own, please contact a certified child passenger safety technician (CPST) to help you. Even if you think you have everything right, it's always a good idea to have your seats checked. It is a CPST's job to help parents use their car seats properly. If you can't find a CPST with which to have a private appointment to go over your car seat installs, many fire departments have a fitting station with CPSTs available by appointment or during drop-in hours. Check with your local government or health department to see if there is a fitting station in your area.
Go here to find a CPST near you.
You can also visit this message board, frequented by many passionate CPSTs, to ask questions.
COMMON CAR SEAT ERRORS
LATCH and Seat Belt Errors
* Using LATCH in a center seating position when it is not allowed by the manufacturer - most vehicles do not permit you to install a car seat in the center, using the two inner LATCH anchors from the side seating positions. Check your vehicle and child restraint manuals. If nothing is specifically mentioned to allow it, don't do it.
* Using LATCH and a seat belt together - you must use one system or the other, not both. Either method is safe when used correctly, so go with the method that gets you the easiest/best install.
* Not using the top tether anchor when the lower LATCH anchors are used for a forward facing seat - the top tether MUST be used when a seat is installed forward facing with LATCH.
* Using the LATCH system beyond its weight limit - most vehicles and car seats have a weight limit for using LATCH, usually 40 or 48 lb. Check your vehicle and car seat manuals for this information. Sometimes it is not in the vehicle manual and you will need to contact the manufacturer by phone, or ask a CPST to look up the information for you in their LATCH manual. If the vehicle and car seat manuals defer to one another, err on the side of caution and assume a 40 lb limit.
* Incorrect seat belt routing on a booster - make sure to read and follow the instructions for how to route the seat belt correctly over your child. Many boosters have arm rests that need the lap belt routed under them instead of over.
* Seat belt not locked - a seat belt must lock at the retractor or the latchplate to hold a car seat securely. If it locks at the retractor, you must pull the seat belt out as far as it goes and then feed it back into the retractor. Sometimes a ratcheting noise is audible. Gently pull on the belt to test and make sure it is locked. Ask a CPST for help in identifying the locking mechanism on your seat belts if you are unsure.
* Loose car seat install - a car seat must be installed tightly enough that there is an inch or less of movement in all directions at the belt path when pushed or pulled on.
* Incorrect belt path used on convertible seat install - you must use the belt path designated for the type of install you are doing. Usually the rear facing belt path runs under the child's bottom/legs and the forward facing belt path runs behind their back.
* Harness in the wrong position - straps must come out at or below the shoulders for rear facing; at or above for forward facing.
* Harness twisted - straps must lay completely flat every time the seat is used. A twisted harness will not distribute weight correctly in a crash and could cause injury.
* Harness too loose - straps must be very snug; you should not be able to pinch a horizontal fold in the harness webbing at the child's collar bone
* Improperly routed harness - make sure that the harness is going through the same slots on the cover as on the shell of the seat. This mistake usually happens when the straps are moved to a different slot or when the seat has been taken apart for cleaning.
* Chest clip out of position (usually too low) - the chest clip should be at armpit level at all times.
* Thick coats/snow suits/buntings/seat liners (including the Bundle Me and similar items) - bulky items can cause the harness to be too loose to adequately protect the child, and items that go between the baby and the seat/harness can interfere with correct positioning of the harness. To test the thickness of a clothing item, put it on your child and then strap them into their car seat with the straps tightened normally. Unbuckle them without changing the harness tightness and remove the item of clothing. Strap them in again, still leaving the harness at the same tightness. If you can fit more than one finger under the harness at the collar bone, it's too loose and the item of clothing is too bulky for the car seat. To keep kids warm safely, use fleece jackets/snowsuits/ponchos, "shower cap" type covers for infant seats, or, after the child is securely buckled in, put a blanket on them or put their coat on backwards.
Car Seat Limit Errors
* Forward facing too soon - a child must be at least one year old AND 20 lb before forward facing. Keep in mind that this is a very bare minimum; children are MUCH safer rear facing for as long as possible. Research has shown rear facing in the second year of life to be 5 times safer than forward facing.
* In a booster too soon - children, especially those under 40 lb, are best protected in a 5 point harness. A child must fit the seat belt appropriately and be able to stay correctly positioned in a seat belt for the entire car ride if they are in a booster. Most children under age 5 do not yet have this maturity, and most of them are also too small to get a good fit. Use the harness on your child's forward facing car seat until they outgrow it or at least until 5 years and 40 lb.
* In a seat belt too soon - children need to pass the 5 step test before they can safely ride in an adult seat belt without a booster.
1. Does the child sit all the way back against the auto seat?
2. Do the child's knees bend comfortably at the edge of the auto seat?
3. Does the belt cross the shoulder between the neck and arm?
4. Is the lap belt as low as possible, touching the thighs?
5. Can the child stay seated like this for the whole trip? If the answer to any of these is "no," the child should ride in an appropriate child safety seat or booster.
* Using a seat beyond its limits - read your seat's manuals and labels carefully to be sure your child fits within the limits. Many of them go to 80 or 100 lb as a booster, but only to 40 or 50 lb with the harness. Height limits are more arbitrary since children are all proportioned differently, but weight limits are set in stone. A rear facing seat is generally outgrown when the child reaches the rear facing weight limit OR their head is less than an inch from the top of the car seat's shell. A forward facing harnessed seat is generally outgrown when the child's shoulders are above the top harness slots OR the tops of the child's ears are above the shell of the seat OR or the child reaches the weight limit on the harness, whichever happens first.
* Aftermarket accessories (head positioners, body padding/positioners, strap covers, hanging toys, under car seat mats/upholstery protectors, mirrors, suction cup window shades, seat belt tighteners/ratchets, bunting bags/liners, custom car seat covers, etc.) - if it did not come with your seat or is not specifically allowed by your car seat manual, don't use it. The less "stuff" involved in your car seat install, the better. Nothing extra should go between the car seat and vehicle seat, the baby and the car seat, or the baby and the harness. Toys, mirrors, and window shades can come loose in a crash and injure passengers. Mats can interfere with an install. Many manufacturers will void the seat's warranty if aftermarket products are used. There are no safety standards for these items, so even those that claim to be "crash tested" or "meet all federal safety standards" (there are none!) cannot be trusted as safe.
* Using an expired car seat - car seats are made mostly of molded plastic, which degrades and becomes brittle over time. Because of this, along with ongoing advances in safety research and technology, car seats have an expiration date and should not be used beyond it. Check your car seat's manual and the shell of the seat itself for this information. Most brands have a 6-7 year lifespan from the time of manufacture (NOT from the first use of the seat).
* Using a seat that has been in a crash - due to damage that cannot be seen from looking at the car seat, most manufacturers say to replace their seats after ANY crash, even a minor one. Check your seat's manual to see what the manufacturer's policy is, and always err on the side of caution if you have any doubts.
* Using a seat with unknown history - buying a used seat from a stranger or a consignment shop, or renting a seat can put your child at risk because you don't know if the seat has been maintained appropriately, if it has ever been in a crash, if it has been recalled, etc. Don't put your child in a used car seat unless you can investigate the history of it and trust the previous user's answers with your child's life.
* Improperly cleaning a car seat - most seats have a removable cover that is hand or machine washable, but harness/LATCH/tether straps should NEVER be washed in a washing machine or with harsh cleaners. This can stretch them or otherwise weaken the fibers. Check your seat's manual for specific instructions on what can be done to clean your seat's straps. If they are beyond cleaning, you can usually order a replacement set from the manufacturer. Be very careful to reassemble the seat correctly after cleaning it.
* Using a car seat for a function it does not perform - make sure you follow the instructions for your seat. Infant seats should NEVER be installed forward facing, and convertible seats that do not become boosters should not be used as a booster.
Do You Use Your Carseat Correctly?
Car Seat Safety: Rear Facing as Long as Possible
Car Seats are for Cars
AAP: Car Seats Lower Oxygen Levels
American Academy of Pediatrics on "Bucket Babies" and SIDS
The Car Seats Group