Car Seat Safety Part 1: Proper Use & Common Mistakes

One of the most important things you can do to prepare for getting out and about with baby is not just to get a good quality car seat, but to learn how to use it properly. I always encourage parents (especially dads) to make sure that a car seat is properly installed by 37 weeks (at the latest!) so that it is ready to go when baby arrives. The last thing you want to be dealing with in labor is trying to figure out how to install the darn thing. (And dads, if you are doing this when mom’s in labor, I’m willing to bet you will not hear the end of it for a very. long. time.)

Most parents (70-90%, depending on your source) have installed their children’s car seats incorrectly. You’d think it would be easier, and perhaps it should be, but there are so many types of car seats and models of vehicles and sizes/shapes of children, that the potential combinations are endless. You need to read not only the car seat manual but the owner’s manual for your vehicle to figure out how – and where – to install a car seat safely. Fortunately, there are car seat safety technicians to help. Certified car seat safety technicians go through 40 hours of training before being able to even look at your seat. They know their stuff. And it’s important. (For the record, I am not a car seat safety technician.)

So, let’s get to some basic rules for car seat safety:


The chest clip should be… on the chest. That means right at armpit level. Not on the tummy. Not at the throat. This positioning should be checked each and every time you strap a baby in.

Speaking of straps, the straps should not be twisted. This applies to the straps inside the car safety seat as well as to any seat belt straps or LATCH straps securing the car seat to the vehicle.

The straps should be snug around the baby. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration states that, “a snug strap should not allow any slack. It lies in a relatively straight line without sagging. It does not press on the child’s flesh or push the child’s body into an un-natural position.” To tell if your child’s harness is tight enough, perform a simple “pinch test”:  Secure your child in the car seat and buckle the harness as usual. Using your thumb and pointer finger, try to pinch one of the harness straps at your child’s collarbone level. If you’re able to pinch the strap, the harness is not tight enough. You should not be able to pinch any excess webbing.

Nothing should come between a baby and her car seat. That means no blankets under the baby and no blankets or other items between the baby and the straps. It also means that no bulky coats or other winter wear should be worn in a car seat. Babies can be and have been ejected from vehicles by slipping out of car seats because the straps were not secured firmly around baby’s body but around such bulky items instead.

The seat should be at about a 45-degree angle. Many car seats will have an indicator on the side so you can see when you are in the green safe zone. You may need to use a rolled-up towel or cut-up pool noodle under the car seat to achieve proper installation and positioning. This is especially critical for infants who are still unable to exercise full neck control. If a baby’s head flops forward and he’s unable to lift his head up again, this could constrict the airway and cause major difficulties, even death.

Harness straps should be positioned at or below baby’s shoulders. It matters which harness slot the strap comes through before it goes over baby, and this will need to be changed as he grows. Note: this applies to rear-facing children (from birth up to at least one year and preferably at least two years of age). Forward-facing children should have the straps come through the harness slots just above their shoulders.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the vast majority of parents and caregivers do at least one of these things improperly. Car seats and chest clips are constantly being moved around by driving, children’s movements, so check them regularly.

Avoid the 5 most significant car seat mistakes parents make:

  1. Loose harness straps
  2. Wrong harness slot used
  3. Improper harness retainer/chest clip position
  4. Loose child restraint system installation
  5. Improper lap belt placement

One question I often get is:

So which car seat is the best? Which one should I buy?
The answer is a little disappointing: The best car seat is simply the one that fits your child properly, is easy for you to use, and fits in your vehicle correctly. It must fit right to work right. The most expensive seat will not necessarily be the safest seat for your child. There is no one single brand or type of seat that will be best for everyone. Properly use what you choose.


Further resources for car seat safety include:

See also: Car Seat Safety Part 2: Expiration, Laws, Travel & More!

And meanwhile, remember safe seat belt use for pregnant women!  PregnantWomenSeatBeltFlyer

Comments are closed.