CAR SEAT SAFETY FOR INFANTS AND TODDLERS
Dr. Cheryl A. Utley
Allison's Infant & Toddler Center Family Support Specialist
One of the most important jobs you have as a parent is keeping your infant and toddler safe when riding in a car. Each year, thousands of young children are killed or injured in car crashes. Every day we lose 4 to 5 children in car crashes. Across the country, we find a greater than 95% misuse of car seats. But, don’t beat yourself up! What looks like just another piece of shiny, plastic baby gear is a complicated piece of safety equipment. Proper use of car seats will keep your infant and/or toddler safe. But with so many different car seats on the market, many parents find this task of selecting a car seat overwhelming. This newsletter provides information on mistakes and solutions to car seat safety for infants and/or toddlers. Winter car safety tips are also provided.
COMMON MISTAKES AND SOLUTIONS
Mistake #1: Picking the wrong seat for your infant’s and/or toddler’s age, height, or weight. A lot of parents may be thinking they can stretch an infant seat until they need a booster seat and save a little money. But while there is no link between the cost of the car seat and its effectiveness, take the time you need to make sure you have the right seat for your infant and/or toddler.
Find the car seat that fits your infant’s and/or toddler’s age, weight and height.
Check the manual and measure your infant’s and/or toddler’s growth periodically so you know when it’s time to move on.
Follow the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines on how long to keep your infant and/or toddler rear-facing.
Never buy a used car seat. There’s no way to know for sure if it has been in an accident, and, seats that have been in the family may be missing parts or expired. Car seats generally have expiration dates six years after manufacturing.
Mistake #2: Not installing your car seat correctly
Car seat safety professionals will tell you they see a lot of car seats installed incorrectly and very few done right. That means most of us are driving with car seats that could be more dangerous than not using one at all. The most common mistakes are:
1. Routing seatbelts incorrectly, 2. Not putting seatbelts in lock mode, 3. Using both the lower anchors of the LATCH system and the seatbelt, 4. Connecting the lower anchors and tethers of the LATCH system to the wrong points in the car, especially cargo hooks, 5. Forgetting to use the tether at all, and 6. Not putting enough weight on the seat as it is being installed.
1. Read BOTH your car seat’s manual and your car’s manual.
2. Decide whether you will use the lower anchors OR a seat belt, and follow the directions for only that method. (The lower anchors are part of the LATCH system, which stands for lower anchors and tethers for children). Once you’ve connected the lower anchor straps, pull the belt tail tightly from the top of the car seat, not the side.
3. If you are using seatbelts, figure out if yours are self-locking (they are required to be in any car made since 1997) and, if they are not, very carefully read how to use either the metal locking clip that came with your seat or the seat belt lock-off (if there is one) built into the car seat.
4. If you are using the lower anchors, make sure you are using the proper anchors for the seat position you have chosen in the car (your car manual will tell you which ones). Many people think their vehicle has lower anchors for the center seat, but most cars don’t. Parents often mistake anchor on the side seats for ones that belong in the center. Make sure to tighten the straps once the clips are locked into place.
5. Know that installing a car seat will take a bit of brute force, so try to put as much of your weight, as possible on the seat as you install it. For rear-facing convertibles, try leaning your stomach on the back of the seat; for forward-facing, put both of your knees on the seat and then secure it. With your weight on the seat, wiggle the seat down into the cushion. Many installations are easier when done with two people.
6. When you’re done, hold the seat where the vehicle or LATCH belt is holding it and really give it a good tug. It should move no more than one inch in any direction (side to side or front to back).
7. Keep the instruction manual for the seat in the storage compartment located on the seat. Keep the car manual in your glove compartment so you can always find it.
8. Have a professional check your work, even if you’re pretty sure you did it right.
Mistake #3: Not getting professional help
There are certified technicians in your local community who are easy to find and inexpensive to consult. You can go to your local police or fire stations, as many parenting books suggest, if they are listed as checkpoints.
Solution: Find the nearest certified technician and drive your newly-installed seat to them (or bring your seat in its box and have them teach you). Even if they only tweak your installation a little—the average installation has three errors—you can walk away with piece of mind. If they do a complete overhaul on your install job, you will be so grateful they did.
Mistake #4: Fitting the harness incorrectly. Think of your infant and/or toddler’s car seat as a parachute that slows his/her fall and cushions his/her landing in a crash. The same applies to a harness, which should fit very snugly to your infant’s and/or toddler’s body. Making it snug is a much safer choice (than loose) and not uncomfortable.
Solution(s): If you're using an infant-only seat or a convertible seat in the rear-facing position, keep these tips in mind:
Use the harness slots described in the car seat's instruction manual, usually those at or below the infant’s or toddler’s shoulders. Place the harness straps over your infant’s and/or toddler’s shoulders.
Buckle the harness straps and chest clip, with the chest clip even with your infant’s and/or toddler’s armpits. Make sure the straps and clip lie flat against your infant’s and/or toddler’s chest and over his or her hips with no slack. If necessary, place tightly rolled small blankets alongside your baby or rolled washcloths between the crotch strap and your baby to create a secure fit.
Mistake #5: Moving to a forward-facing car seat too soon
Resist the urge to place your infant’s and/or toddler’s car seat in the forward-facing position just so that you can see him or her in your rearview mirror. Riding rear facing is recommended until an infant or toddler reaches age 2 or the highest weight — typically at least 35 pounds (about 16 kilograms) — or height allowed by the car seat manufacturer.
Solution(s): When your infant/or toddler reaches age 2 or the rear-facing weight or height limits of the convertible seat, you can face the seat forward. When you make the switch:
Install the car seat in the back seat according to the manufacturer's instructions, using either the seat belt or Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children (LATCH) system.
Use the tether strap — a strap that hooks to the top of the seat and attaches to an anchor in the vehicle — for extra stability.
Adjust the harness straps so that they're at or above your infant’s and/or toddler’s shoulders and fit snugly.
Winter Car Seat Safety Tips
Winter is a tricky time for car seats. As a general rule, bulky clothing, including winter coats and snowsuits, should not be worn underneath the harness of a car seat. In a car crash, fluffy padding immediately flattens out from the force, leaving extra space under the harness. An infant and/or toddler can then slip through the straps and be thrown from the seat. Here are tips from the American Academy of Pediatrics to help you keep your infant and/or toddler safe and warm in their car seats.
Store the carrier portion of infant seats inside the house when not in use. Keeping the seat at room temperature will reduce the loss of the infant’s and/or toddler’s body heat in the car.
Dress your infant and/or toddler in thin layers. Start with close-fitting layers on the bottom, like tights, leggings, and long-sleeved bodysuits. Then add pants and a warmer top, like a sweater or thermal-knit shirt. Your infant and/or toddler can wear a thin fleece jacket over the top. In very cold weather, long underwear is also a warm and safe layering option.
Don't forget hats, mittens, and socks or booties. These help keep infants and toddlers warm without interfering with car seat straps. If your infant and/or toddler is a thumb sucker, consider half-gloves with open fingers or keep an extra pair or two of mittens handy — once they get wet they'll make your infant and/or toddler colder rather than warmer.
Tighten the straps of the car seat harness. Even if your infant and/or toddler looks snuggly bundled up in the car seat, multiple layers may make it difficult to tighten the harness enough. If you can pinch the straps of the car seat harness, then it needs to be tightened to fit snugly against your infant’s and/or toddler’s chest.
Use a coat or blanket over the straps. You can add a blanket over the top of the harness straps or put your infant’s and/or toddler’s winter coat on backwards (over the buckled harness straps) after he or she is buckled up.
Be a good role model. Make sure you always wear your seat belt. This will help your infant/toddler form a lifelong habit of buckling up.
Make sure that everyone who transports your infant/toddler uses the correct car seat or seat belt on every trip, every time. Being consistent with car seat use is good parenting and is safest for your infant/toddler.
Never leave your infant/toddler alone in or around cars. Any of the following situations can happen when an infant/toddler is left alone in or around a vehicle. An infant/toddler can:
Die of heat stroke because temperatures can reach deadly levels in minutes.
Be strangled by power windows or retracting seat belts.
Knock the vehicle into gear, setting it into motion.
Be backed over when the vehicle backs up.
Become trapped in the trunk of the vehicle.
American Academy of Pediatrics. Winter car seat safety tips from the AAP. Available at, https://www.healthychildren.org/English/safety-prevention/on-the-go/Pages/Winter-Car-Seat-Safety-Tips.aspx
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2014. Child passenger safety. Available at, https://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/childpassengersafety/index.html
Healthy Children. (2017). Car seats: Information for families. Available at, https://www.healthychildren.org/English/safety-prevention/on-the-go/Pages/Car-Safety-Seats-Information-for-Families.aspx
Mayo Clinic. (2017). Car seat safety: Avoid 10 common mistakes. Available at, http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/infant-and-toddler-health/in-depth/car-seat-safety/art-20043939
Office of the Illinois Secretary of State. Child passenger safety requirements. Available at, http://www.cyberdriveillinois.com/departments/drivers/childsafety.html