There is no single more important piece of child safety equipment than a car seat. In 2015, 121,000 kids under the age of 12 were injured in automobile accidents in the United States ⏤ 663 died. In fact, motor vehicle injuries are the leading cause of death among children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And car seats can reduce that chance of death by up to 71 percent.
READ MORE: The Fatherly Guide to Car Seats
Why then, if car seats are so critical and seemingly easy to use, do so many parents consistently get something wrong with either their installation or use? One study has the error rate at around 75 percent. That’s three-quarters of all parents making at least some mistake, albeit one as minor as not tightening the harness enough. Why is that number so high?
Part of the reason, obviously, involves education and misinformation. Not every parent was told to avoid putting a child wearing a winter coat into a car seat, or read the manual to identify where to position the chest clip. Admittedly, parenting can be a learn-on-the-fly kind of job. The other factor to consider is that car seats, no matter how simple the concept, can be a royal pain. They’re not always easy to position, tweak, or tighten properly. There’s a reason that certified child passenger safety (CPS) technicians exist and why police and fire departments will check or install a car seat for you. Car seats can be frustrating.
But what are some of most common mistakes parents keep making, whether unwittingly or not? Here are seven car seat mistakes to avoid.
1. Installing the Car Seat Improperly
Car seats may seem easy to install, but they can be difficult to install correctly. A few common errors include the seat being positioned at the wrong angle (is the arrow parallel to the road?), using the wrong belt (lap or shoulder) or belt path, and securing the seat tight enough ⏤ if it wiggles more than an inch on either side, try again. In addition, unlike wearing both suspenders and a belt to keep up a pair of pants, using the LATCH and seatbelt simultaneously to secure a car seat is not the more secure decision. Just the opposite. Be sure to follow the manual for proper installation and if there are any questions, the National Highway Transportation Safety Association (NHTSA) maintains a list of local spots where you can have a car seat checked.
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2. Turning the Car Seat Around Too Soon
The American Association of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that parents keep infants and toddlers in rear-facing car seats until they’re at least 2-years-old or exceed the height and weight limits allowed by the manufacturer. So does the NHTSA. So does pretty much every group that advocates for child car safety, like Kids in Danger and Safe Kids. So does science and the laws of basic physics. The only people who don’t appear to recommend this are the 40 percent of parents who aren’t aware of the recommendations, want to see their children’s face, or can’t be inconvenienced with having to turn a toddler around to put them into a rear-facing seat (it can be a pain), and who turn their car seats around prematurely.
Legroom, by the way, doesn’t need to play a part in the decision to turn a child around either. As long as the child fits under the upper weight or height limit of the car seat, and their head is below the line, they can continue to ride rear-facing ⏤ it doesn’t matter how high up the back of seat their legs have to be propped. As some parents say, better a broken leg than a broken spine.
3. Not Fastening the Car Seat Top Tether
One of the least known safety features on a car seat, at least according to surveys, is the top tether. Generally tucked away out of sight in the back of the seat, it’s used to help prevent a forward-facing car seat from toppling forward during an accident. The only problem is that 64 percent of parents with forward-facing car seats don’t use the seat’s top tether, and of those who do, more than 50 percent aren’t attaching it properly, often fastening it to a cargo hook or routing it to a lower anchor. Every car sold after 2001 has three anchor points. When that car seat finally gets turned around, it’s crucial to make sure the tether is fastened.
4. Leaving the Car Seat Shoulder Harnesses Too Loose
Leaving the shoulder harnesses too loose, or not positioning the chest clip at armpit level, tends to be done more of our care than negligence. Nobody wants to hurt their infant or listen to a toddler yell, “too tight! too tight!” It’s important, however, that the should straps sit untangled and flush on the child’s chest and be as snug as possible without actually hurting them. To check, use the pinch method ⏤ if there’s any slack in the shoulder harness when you pinch it with your thumb and forefinger, it needs tightening.
Another common mistake often made by parents who may not live in a cold-weather climate: Never put a baby or toddler in a car seat wearing a puffy winter coat or snowsuit. It’s a bit of an optical illusion, but while the child may seem to fit snugly in the seat with the coat on, there’s actually on average an extra four inches of space between their body and the harness, thanks to the fill of the jacket. That extra space is enough to render the seat practically useless and can lead to a child flying right out in a crash. Unless it’s a specially designed coat like a Buckle Me Baby Coat, always take it off before securing the child in the seat. And if you’re unsure as to the thickness of the jacket, you can follow these instructions to test it.
6. Forgetting to Check If a Kid’s Outgrown Their Car Seat
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that your child is a growing person who has long since outpaced their car seat’s weight or height restrictions. Before you find yourself looking back at a toddler’s head towering three inches above the top of the seat, however, set up a reminder in your calendar. Every month, three months, six months, up to you, but have a notification pop up to check the car seat’s limitations and your kid’s height and weight. While you’re at it, make sure the straps are positioned at or above the kid’s shoulders for forward facing seats (at or below for a rear-facing baby) and that the headrest is extended if necessary.
7. Not Sending in the Car Seat’s Registration Card or Checking For Recalls
The NHTSA rigorously tracks every car seat that’s been recalled in the United States in an updated online database. You’ll never know, however, if your seat makes the list unless you check the site or send in your seat’s registration card. Do both. Many parents do not.