8 Things Every Parent Should Know Before They Strap Their Kid Into a Car Seat

May 19 2016 - 6:15am

Being a parent comes with a fair amount of pressure, but perhaps the most stressful part of parenting is driving our children around — or having someone else drive them. Making sure your child's car seat is installed the correct way and that they are buckled in properly is something that, while of the utmost importance, can end up being taken for granted because it's done so often — but it needs to be done properly every time.

Over the past few months, a few stories about children's lives who were saved by their properly installed car seats [1] in crashes have gone viral. This press is helping to alert parents to the fact that, had the car seats in those stories been incorrectly installed [2], those families may not have been as lucky.

With that in mind, we spoke to car seat expert Ryan Hawker, director of product management at Dorel Juvenile USA [3], about some general safety tips and tricks. Read through for eight ways to make sure your child is safe in their car seat every time you take a drive.

Keep your child rear-facing for as long as possible.

When most parents hear "rear-facing car seat," they typically make a connection to an infant seat, but the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children stay in a rear-facing seat [4] until at least 2 years of age. This means that once a baby has outgrown her infant seat, she should continue to sit rear-facing in a convertible seat until her second birthday, as being rear-facing does a better job of protecting their head, neck, and spine in a crash. Each seat has different weight and height restrictions, but Hawker agrees that age 2 is the new minimum for rear-facing.

Switch to a convertible seat once your baby has grown out of an infant seat.

Infant seats have height and weight guidelines, but most babies max out on the height of the seat first. While some reports say to switch your baby to a convertible seat as soon as they reach their first birthday, Hawker says to pay attention to the space between the child's head and the shell of the seat. If there is less than an inch of space between the two, they're too tall and it's time to upgrade them to a convertible seat that can accommodate their height. If your child is older than 12 months and hasn't grown out on her infant seat, it's OK to keep using it, but Hawker also says, "A rear-facing convertible car seat is an excellent option for children just over 1 year old," whether they've maxed out on their infant seat or not.

Don't believe the rumors that your child is "too tall" to rear-face.

A lot of parents worry about what their taller child will do with his feet in a rear-facing convertible seat, but Hawker says it's just a perception. "Often when we do car seat checks, we find that older, taller children in rear-facing seats sit with their legs crisscross, which is very common for kids who are 2 to 3 years old. They're very comfortable that way, and we haven't seen any issues with that. Even if their feet are against the back of the seat, that's fine, as long as they're rear-facing."

Find someone to help you install your seat.

One of the most important first moves when you buy a car seat is to read the owner's manual — which is full of information and will have a customer service line for questions — but Hawker also recommends getting an expert to help you install your seat. You can Skype or video call with an installation expert — some brands like Safety 1st have technicians available to walk you through it — or you can find a safety check event [5] (or get a local technician to help you one on one) in your area.

Use the "Inch Rule."

When installing a seat, one of the most important things to consider is how much it moves after install. Hawker says: "The rule of thumb is that it shouldn’t move more than an inch when you push and pull. Kind of tug at it, you don’t have to lean into the whole car seat. If it moves more than an inch, it’s usually not considered a very good install and isn’t tight enough. If it wiggles no more than an inch, it’s considered good to go."

Use the "Pinch Rule" to figure out if your child should be wearing his coat.

Puffy jackets are great in the Winter, but they cause a bunch of issues — when your child has one on, it creates unnecessary space between the car seat or booster seat buckle and your child, so when stopping short, or in a crash, that space then becomes room for your child to move more than they should.

To make sure this doesn't happen, use the "Pinch Rule": when you buckle your child in without a coat, you should not be able to pinch any material of their clothes between their shoulder and the buckle strap — if you can, there is too much slack in the strap. Tighten the strap so it's snug, and then try that buckle length when they have their coat on — if it seems too tight (or won't buckle) because of the jacket, remove it and buckle them in without a coat.

Pro tip: Hawker gears his own kids up for Winter with a thin fleece zip-up (that fits safely under their straps) underneath their coats, to make sitting in the car and transfers in and out of the car warm enough. Then after buckling his kids in, he puts their jackets on them backward, over the buckle.

Know the important factors to consider when buying a car seat.

Car seats can be expensive, so to ensure that you're getting the right type of seat for the money you're spending, there are three things to make sure of:

  1. That the seat fits your child. Check the seat's age, height, and weight ranges before purchasing.
  2. That the seat fits your car. If you have a smaller car, you may not want a seat so bulky that it is hard to get your child in and out easily.
  3. That you are comfortable using it every time. If you need help deciding, speak to an expert, so you can be sure you're ready to drive your baby around in their seat safely.

Get your car seat checked if you're in a fender bender.

There are a lot of things that can go wrong with your car seat internally if you're in an accident, even if it's just a minor fender bender. If you've been in an accident, call your seat company's customer service so they can help you figure out if the seat is still safe to use.

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