Struggling to install a child car seat is a universal experience for American parents. In fact, car seats are so deeply ingrained in parenthood that most hospitals will not allow parents to take their baby home unless they’ve seen that the child fits into an appropriate infant seat. Still, total adoption hasn’t led to total product perfection. For all of their innovations they advertise, manufacturers of child safety seats have yet to create a seamless and foolproof seat. Sure, a seat may say that it’s easy to install and grows with the child, but that doesn’t mean a parent isn’t going to curse the thing a million times before their kid is big enough to use a seat belt.
The harsh truth is that child car seats are a painful necessity in a parents life which can inspire some to seek shortcuts to improve ease of use. The problem is that taking shortcuts with a car seat can ultimately put a child’s health and life at risk. And that means parents need to be aware of the potential trouble prior to getting a kid in the seat for the first time. Coming to terms with potential car seat issues can help prepare a parent for the long haul.
Harsh Truth #1: Car Seats Are a Pain to Install
No matter how easy a car seat says it is to install, expect to do some swearing and sweating. A car seat’s installation doesn’t just depend on the car seat itself. The ease or difficulty of fitting the seat in a vehicle often depends on the car’s make and model, and the accessibility of the car seat anchor points.
That said, the pain of installation can be mitigated. Almost every firehouse in America will have a professional on hand to help parents with car seat installation. And many cities offer regular car seat clinics to help parents troubleshoot and improve car seat installation.
Harsh Truth #2: Car Seats Collect Filth
Children are notoriously messy for most of their lives. Car seats are full of folds, crevices, and various nooks and crannies. The inevitable result of these two facts is that a child’s car seat will collect and harbor nastiness and filth.
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Parents can keep the mess down through one very important method: never letting their kid eat in the car seat. But while that may sound like a simple solution, it certainly isn’t convenient. One of the best ways to keep kids quiet in the car is filling their mouths with snacks.
The better option for parents is to simply remove the car seat at least twice a month and give it a good once over. Consider it car seat installation practice too.
Harsh Truth #3: Winter Coats and Car Seats Don’t Mix
Winter coats and car seats do not mix. The puffier they are, the worse they are for car seat safety. It doesn’t matter how hard you cinch the straps when a kid is in a puffy coat, there will still be enough room for the child to slip out and become injured in a crash.
The struggle, then, becomes how to keep kids warm in a chilly winter car. Some parents opt to bring the car seat in with them so it stays warm in the house. Other’s cover the kid with a blanket when they get in the car or warm the vehicle up ahead of time. And there’s also a coat designed specifically to be used with car seats.
The point is, with so many options there’s no excuse to put your kid in a car seat with a heavy winter coat.
Harsh Truth #4: Rear-Facing Car Seats Are Better, Weird
The American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP) and the National Highway Traffic Safety board both recommend that children stay in a rear-facing car seat until they outgrow the height and weight limits. For its part, the AAP notes that children in other countries routinely ride backward until 4-years-old and injury and death for those older children is incredibly rare.
Of course, there’s no law saying that parents need to keep kids facing the rear until 4 years old. Not yet, anyway. But that doesn’t mean parents can’t enforce the standard themselves. Still, the older a kid gets, the more awkward parents will feel about it. But there’s no need for awkwardness. Turns out preschoolers are pretty comfy facing backward. And the view out the rear window is just as interesting as the view out the front.
Harsh Truth #5: Car Seat Accessories Can Be Dangerous
If an accessory did not come with the car seat, out of the box, then it’s likely that they have not been tested in crash situations. These accessories should not, by any circumstances, be attached to or used on a car seat because they could change the way a car seat behaves in a collision and wind up injuring a child. So, no mirrors, no mobiles, no fans, and no additional restraints or padding.
The one exception to the rule are devices that are made specifically to help adjust the angle of rear-facing car seats. When installing some rear-facing car seats, putting the seat in the optimal angle can create a gap between the vehicles seat and the car seat. Angle adjusters fill these gaps, provide more stability and help the car seat perform as intended.
Harsh Truth #6: Car Seat Tethers Are a Necessary Hassle
When a child switches to forward facing, many parents forget one of the most crucial safety features of their car seat: the top strap. This strap is meant to be anchored securely behind the seat to stop the forward momentum in a collision. If it’s not used, the car seat will not work as expected and the child could be injured.
Almost every vehicle made in the last decade should have some anchor point that the rear strap can attach to. That doesn’t make attaching the strap any easier, but it does mean there’s no excuse to not use this crucial part of the seat.
Harsh Truth #7: Car Seats Have Expiration Dates
Just like a tub of sour cream, car seats have expiration dates. Those dates are generally six to ten years after their first use. Some car seats that grow with a child could potentially last a decade, but understanding expiration dates is far more important for those who might consider picking up a used seat instead of buying one new.
Importantly, used car seats are never a great idea for a number of reasons, including the fact that it’s often impossible to know the history of a seat and whether it has previously been in a collision.
Harsh Truth #8: Children Grow Out of Car Seats
If a child doesn’t stay in a car seat long enough to hit the expiration date, then they will most likely grow out of it. Every car seat has a height and weight limit that parents should heed.
Even when parents are using car seats that “grow with” their child, it’s important to keep track of height and weight to know when to convert the car seat to the next stage. A good way to do this is to check the car seat after well-child visits to the pediatrician where height and weight are routinely tracked. Write down the information and then check the car seat specs before putting the kid back in the car.
Harsh Truth #9: Car Seats Get Recalled Constantly
Because a child’s life literally depends on a car seat working properly, regulators are strident about making sure every car seat on the market is safe. But some issue pop up after a car seat has already reached consumers.
To offer the best protection for their child, parents should register their car seat after-purchase so they can be contacted by the company should any issues arise. If the car seat hasn’t been registered then parents should be vigilant and keep an eye on websites that track recalls of child products to make sure they aren’t inadvertently strapping their kid into a death trap.