14 Common Car Seat Mistakes (And How to Avoid Them)

This article was produced in partnership with Buckle Up for Life, a national car seat safety program created by Cincinnati Children’s and Toyota to help keep children safe in cars. To date, Buckle Up for Life has reached 65,000 people and continues to expand. To learn more about Buckle Up for Life, visit BuckleUpforLife.org.

All parents want to keep their kids safe when riding in the car. But when the rubber hits the road, many moms and dads put their children at risk without even realizing it. “When the average caregiver thinks about child passenger safety, they assume that if the kid is in a car seat, that’s good enough,” says Patrick Edmunds, a father and program manager of Buckle Up for Life, a national car seat safety program from Cincinnati Children’s and Toyota. “But you also have to use car seats correctly — every single time in every vehicle.”

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READ MORE: The Fatherly Guide to Car Seats

Car seats may seem simple to install and straightforward to use, but they are easier to get wrong than most parents think. “Three out of four car seats in the U.S. are installed incorrectly,” says Jennifer Pelky, a mother of two and senior engineer in vehicle safety and crashworthiness at Toyota. “Obviously, parents are not intentionally putting children in danger — this is really an education issue.” That is why Buckle up for Life has developed partnerships across the 48 continental United States and Alaska to teach parents, caregivers and children about the proper use of car seats. Here are the most common errors parents make with car seats, and how to remedy them.

Car Seat Mistake #1: The Loose Seat

“We often see the straps attaching the car seat to the vehicle seat not being tight enough,” Edmunds says. “There’s a quick and easy way to check this: the inch test. Once the car seat is installed, tug on the bottom base, where the car seat meets the vehicle seat. It should not move more than one inch front to back or side to side.”

Car Seat Mistake #2: The Loose Harness Strap

Parents also tend to leave too much slack in the straps holding children into car seats; these restraints should be snug. “Couple the inch test with a pinch test,” Edmunds says. “Once your child is strapped in, pinch the harness strap at her shoulder. If it wrinkles, it is not tight enough.” He also often sees chest clips resting too low, usually around the bellybutton. This clip should be at armpit level to help safeguard your child’s torso in the event of a crash.

car seat mistakes

Car Seat Mistake #3: The Puffy Jacket (While Buckled In)

That billowy snowsuit may protect your child from the cold, but it’s putting them at unnecessary risk on the road. “All those layers and poof just add extra slack,” Pelky says. “It’s really the same as having loose straps over no coat.” It’s much safer to strap your child in first and then either cover her with a blanket or put her winter coat on backwards. You can also buy a special car seat poncho that’ll provide warmth without getting in between the straps and your child.

Car Seat Mistake #4: The Ignored Expiration Date

Many parents think a car seat will last forever (assuming it hasn’t weathered a crash). But every seat has an expiration date, typically six to 10 years from the date of manufacture, and you should absolutely abide by it. “Those dates are there for a reason,” Edmunds says. After the expiration date, the integrity of the fabric in the straps and the plastic in the seat itself can break down, compromising its ability to protect your child in the event of a crash. Edmunds notes, “Extreme weather changes are stressful on car seat components. And remember, in the summertime, the temperature inside your car is often hotter than the outside temp.”

Car Seat Mistake #5: The Risky Secondhand Seat

Sure, you can save some cash by accepting a hand-me-down seat or buying one used, but this is risky. “Unless you know for sure that a secondhand seat is not expired and has never been involved in a crash or recalled by the manufacturer, we recommend purchasing a new car seat,” Pelky says.

Car Seat Mistake #6: The Overly-Pricey Seat

Related to the last tip, when shopping for car seats, many parents equate a higher price tag with enhanced safety. Don’t. “While there are some really nice car seats with extra padding, fancy cup holders, trendy fabric patterns, and more bells and whistles, these are no safer than the more basic, affordable seats,” Edmunds says. “All car seats sold in the U.S. must meet the same standards by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.” Pelky tells parents that the safest seat is the one that fits the vehicle and child, and is installed and used correctly every time.

car seat mistake

Car Seat Mistake #7: The Early Turnaround

“We often see parents transition their kids to different stages too early,” Pelky says. “They should be in a rear-facing car seat at least until age two.” The reason for this? Most severe crashes are front impacts, and infants have large heads and smaller bodies. If your child is facing forward during a crash, their head, arms and legs would be pulled forward, putting more force on the head and neck and increasing the risk for severe injuries. “But when the child is rear-facing, most of those crash forces get loaded into the seat back and spread out,” Pelky explains. You can keep your child in their rear-facing seat past the age of two, until they surpass the height and weight limit listed by the car seat manufacturer.

Car Seat Mistake #8: The Missed Top Tether

Once toddlers are ready to face forward, parents have to re-install their car seat and many forget to attach the top tether, which holds the top of the car seat firmly in place. “The tether reduces how far forward the child’s head moves in a vehicle by up to six inches,” Pelky says. “When we see head and neck injuries, it’s often from the child’s head striking the seat in front of them or another part of the interior. Missing the tether may be because parents either didn’t notice the extra strap or didn’t have their installation re-checked by a technician once the child moved to a front-facing seat.”

Many parents also don’t realize that the routing pattern of the install straps may need to change when they switch a convertible seat from rear- to front-facing. Be sure to hang onto the car seat owner’s manual so you’ll have guidance at every stage.

Car Seat Mistake #9: The Early Booster Seat Transition

“Kids should remain in a forward-facing car seat until they hit the height and weight limits of that seat and are developmentally mature enough to sit in a booster,” Pelky says. “That means they can stay centered in the seat, are not wiggling or leaning forward to pick up toys, and can keep the shoulder belt on their shoulders and the lap belt on their hips.”

Car Seat Mistake #10: The Early Booster Seat Graduation

Similarly, many parents let their children graduate from boosters too early. “Kids shorter than 4-feet 9-inches must be in a booster, which could mean until they are 10 or even 12 years old,” Edmunds says. If they leave the booster too soon, the child may not be wearing the seatbelt properly and runs the risk of damaging their internal organs in a crash. For example, the shoulder belt should not be near their neck or face; instead it should be flat across their chest. Likewise, the lap belt should not be positioned over their abdomen. It should lay across their hip bones. Another way to tell that your kid is ready to leave her booster behind: She can sit up straight in the seat with the strap resting on her shoulder, not her neck, and place her feet flat on the floor.

But regardless of height, keep all kids in the back seat until they are 13, says Edmunds. “Air bags are fantastic lifesaving devices, but they are really intended to protect adults,” he explains. “They can be dangerous for a child’s smaller frame.”

Car Seat Mistake #11: The Unused Technician

Even if you think you’ve got a handle on proper car seat installation and use, swallow your pride and have your work checked by a certified car seat technician. “Buckleupforlife.org is a great resource for parents to find tips on installation and search for a certified car seat technician in their area to conduct a safety check on their seat,” Pelky says. All you need to do is visit the website and punch in your zip code. Car seat checks are available in most cities across the U.S., and are usually free.

Car Seat Mistake #12: The Unregistered Car Seat

Every car seat comes with a registration card that parents should fill out and mail back to the manufacturer; or you can register the seat online. “Registration gets missed a lot, especially by new parents,” Pelky says. “Everything is so crazy when they first have a baby, and registering a car seat is hardly the first thing on their mind.”

But this simple step is crucial, as it allows the manufacturer to alert you to any recalls immediately. Sometimes these are labeling errors, but other times the recall involves a faulty part that can expose your children to danger. In those cases, manufacturers will replace the part or even the entire seat for free. Although you can register your seat at any time, Pelky suggests taking care of this before your baby arrives, ideally as soon as you get the seat.

Car Seat Mistake #13: The Unnecessary Toys and Accessories

“Dangly toys and other accessories could come loose upon impact and strike your child,” Pelky says. “If an accessory didn’t come with the car seat, or if it isn’t recommended by the car seat manufacturer, don’t use it.” Latch-on mirrors are doubly dangerous. “Besides possibly becoming a projectile, if you are glancing at your rear-view mirror to look into your child’s mirror, your eyes are not on the road,” Pelky says. Placing a non-approved seat protector beneath a car seat is another no-no, she adds. These can cause slippage and they are not safety-tested by car seat manufacturers.

Car Seat Mistake #14: The Unbuckled Adult

The name Buckle Up for Life refers to not just saving lives, but the need to buckle up at every stage of life. Kids watch their parents’ every move and often try to copy your actions. Therefore, it’s a lot easier to keep them restrained if you’re strapped in too — especially as they get older and can unbuckle themselves or fuss about having to use a booster seat. “Unrestrained drivers are more likely to have unrestrained children,” Pelky says. “Parents need to buckle up on every ride, for their safety and their children’s.”

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