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17 December 2010

Guest Post: Everything You Ever Needed To Know About Car Seat Safety!

Hello, friends! I'm really excited to be sharing this guest post from my friend Emma: The Car Seat Expert! She has kindly put together this fabulous post all about the installation and use of car seats!

gretchen & georgia In the summertime, Emma actually spotted this photo on my blog and sent a message to help me correct the strap positioning above Gretchen's shoulders! Thank goodness!

Enjoy this must-read post! You'll be glad you did!


Car Seat 101!

I'm Emma, mom to 2 year old Sam and a Child Passenger Safety Technician in Colorado. I get asked a lot of questions about car seats and child safety in vehicles, so I thought I'd put together a little bit of a primer on car seat safety.

Ok so first, there are basically four steps a child goes through in a vehicle:
1. Rear facing
2. Forward facing
3. Booster
4. Seat belt
Let's break 'em down.

1. Rear facing:
A child can rear face in two types of car seats: an infant seat, and a convertible seat. An infant seat is the bucket kind you see people lugging little babies around all over the place, like this:

11-17-10 005

The base is secured in the vehicle with a seat belt or LATCH (more on that later) and the car seat portion just snaps into it so that you can pull it in and out easily, and they usually snap into a stroller as well, so it makes them very convenient.

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Infant car seat base secured with a seat belt

Most infant seats can also be secured in a vehicle without the base by running the seat belt through the guides on the top of the seat, like this:

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Infant seats can only be used rear facing, and typically have an upper weight limit of anywhere from 20 - 35 pounds.

A convertible seat is a much larger seat that can be used either rear facing or forward facing. The entire seat is installed in the vehicle like this:

11-17-1- 008

And the seat can also be used forward facing, like this:

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A few more notes about rear facing:

The law (aka the bare minimum) in most states is that children remain rear facing until they are one year AND twenty pounds. Best practice, however, is that your child remain rear facing as absolutely long as possible. In a rear facing seat, the seat is able to absorb all the force of a crash. In a forward facing seat, the child's neck and spine take all the force of the impact. When you're talking about a young child, their head, neck and spine are so immature that that amount of force is far too much for them to handle.
Search "rear facing car seat crash" on YouTube and there are quite a few great videos that show the difference of how crash force is exerted on a child in a rear facing versus forward facing seat.

2. Forward Facing
Again, there are two types of car seats in which a child can ride forward facing. A convertible seat, like we described, and a combination seat. A combination seat is one that is a forward facing seat with a five point harness, and also is a belt positioning booster seat, but can not be used as a rear facing seat. There are a couple seats that are exceptions and do all three, but generally that's the case.

This is a combination seat being used with the five point harness (my son had taken a nap by the time I got to taking these pictures, my apologies for the less than life size model!)

11-17-10 010

Kids should be in a five point harness until they outgrow the weight and height restrictions on the seat. There are a lot of seats on the market now that allow the five point harness to be used up to 65 pounds, and even a few that go to 80 pounds.

3. Booster
The purpose of a booster seat is to properly position an adult seat belt over a child. This is the same seat as in the previous picture, but being used as a booster seat rather than the 5 point harness:

11-17-10 009

Kids from about 4-8 years old are not tall enough for an adult seat belt to properly restrain them, so they need a booster to do that. A booster seat is not installed in a vehicle like a car seat is, the child simply sits in it and buckles the normal seat belt.
There are two types of boosters, a high back booster like you see above, and a backless booster, like this one:


There isn't a specific size requirement necessarily for a child to sit in a high back booster versus a backless booster, but in general younger kids (4-5) need to be in a high back booster because they do a far better job of positioning the seat belt on a smaller child, and they also offer some side impact protection for the head/neck. Older kids (6-7-8) can ride in a backless booster if they just need that extra height for the seat belt to sit properly across their chest. The backless booster is also helpful for older kids that want to battle with their parents over needing to ride in a "car seat".

You CAN NOT use a booster seat with an older car that only has a lap belt, the seat must have a lap/shoulder belt.

The transition from a car seat to a booster seat for a preschool aged kid is much more about maturity than size. Younger kids absolutely need the restraint that comes with a harness they can't get out of. For a kid to be able to ride in a booster seat they need to be able to understand that they need to sit properly in the seat and not be wiggling around or leaning forward or unbuckling the seat belt or climbing out or whatever. A lot of folks will move tall, skinny 3 year olds into booster seat but the problem with a 30-something pound kid in a booster is that a lot of times they can slide downwards without that lower harness between the legs that isn't there with a booster.

The law in Colorado is that kids need to be in a booster seat until age 8. The experts that wrote the legislature used vital statistics to determine that a very small percentage of 7 year olds meet the weight and height requirements to be able to sit in an adult seat belt properly, so the age of 8 was set.

4. Seat Belt
A child is ready to ride in a vehicle in the adult seat belt when they can sit all the way back in the seat and have their knees bent at a 90 degree angle and the seat belt sit properly - low across their hips and even across their chest/shoulder (not cutting across their neck or face). Most kids will be at least 8 years old and 4'9" tall in order to accomplish that.

Kids should be in the back seat until they are 13 years old. That's mainly because the force of airbags is unbelievable and a 9,10 etc year old kid often can't withstand it and be ok.

Let's talk installation. A car seat can be installed two ways - using the vehicle's seat belt or using LATCH. LATCH stands for Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children. They are metal hooks in the crevice (bight) of the seat that the car seat can click in to.

Vehicle manufacturers were required to include LATCH in vehicles made in 2003 and later. (A few earlier year model vehicles do have them).

Lower Anchors refers to the hooks in the seat bight, and Tethers refers to a tether hook somewhere behind the seat. In mini vans and SUVs they're usually on the back of the seat, the floor, or the ceiling. In sedans they're usually on the back deck.

In my Honda CRV, the tether anchor is on the ceiling:

11-17-1- 006

None of my cars are new enough to have LATCH hooks (tether anchors were standard a few years before LATCH anchors) so I apologize for my lack of photos there!

LATCH is just as good as using the seat belt. LATCH was created for convenience, and in some vehicles it certainly is more convenient. But by all means, do not feel like you need to go buy a new car if your vehicle is older than 2003. None of my cars are new enough to have LATCH and I feel completely comfortable with my son's safety in our vehicle.
The problem with LATCH is that there are quite a few tricky rules and because of that, it gets misused quite often.

The biggest things I see people do wrong with LATCH are:

-Installing a car seat in the center seat with LATCH when the vehicle doesn't have center LATCH hooks. Most sedans and smaller SUVS only have LATCH hooks for the outer seats, not the center seats. I see this all the time! If your vehicle has LATCH in the center seat, it will have a pair of hooks for EACH seat in the row. The owner's manual will have this information as well.
-Installing a car seat with LATCH and a seat belt. You want to use one or the other, not both.
-Using LATCH hooks without the top tether. All three hooks are required to be used together for forward facing. If you have a forward facing seat installed with LATCH you must use the two LATCH hooks AND the tether together. Rear facing seats do not use the top tether (though there are a handful of convertible seats that allow the top tether to be hooked down on the floor for rear facing).
-Using LATCH with a child over 40 pounds. Most LATCH hooks have a weight limit of 30-40 pounds. There is a lot of debate in the car seat community whether that refers to the weight of the child AND the car seat or just the child. Every car seat manual and vehicle manual reads a little bit different, and there's not extensive testing as to what the actual weight limits of the LATCH hooks are, so it's a bit of a gray area. I always recommend that people err on the side of caution and start using the seat belt once the child is around 30-35 pounds.

Seat Belt:
I'll say it again because it's important - the seat belt is just as good as LATCH. In a lot of cases it can even be easier depending on your vehicle and car seat situation.

When a car seat is installed in a vehicle with the seat belt, the seat belt needs to be locked so the seat is securely in the vehicle. There are a few ways this happens. The most common way in most vehicles is that you slowly pull the seat belt all the way out, and you'll hear it begin to ratchet back in and it is in the locked mode. A lot of Chrysler and GM vehicles and some European vehicles have a lock on the latchplate of the seat belt (the male end that goes into the buckle) so that when the set belt is pulled parallel and tight, it is in the locked position.

They can be difficult to work with with certain car seats, and we have other ways of locking the seat belt if necessary, usually with a locking clip:

11-17-10 012

The I shaped piece of metal above the buckle is called a locking clip. Every car seat comes with one, the seat belt in the photo actually has a locking latchplate, but the angle is a little bit weird with that seat, so I am using the locking clip also to make sure it stays tight.

A really cool feature of a lot of the mid-high price range car seats is that they have lock offs built in so that you don't need to lock the seat belt. It's really helpful for older vehicles.

This is an example of a forward facing shoulder belt lock off:

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And a rear facing lock off:

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A seat belt on its own is sufficient to hold in a car seat, however if you're installing a forward facing car seat and a top tether is available, it is recommended that it is used along with the seat belt. JUST the top tether, not the lower LATCH hooks.

People are always concerned about how tight a seat is. You've gotten it tight enough when there is less than an inch of movement at the belt path. That means you shouldn't be able to slide it around more than an inch at the place where the seat belt goes through or where the LATCH hooks are. I'm not a big or particularly strong person and I can very efficiently get a seat in with just putting pressure with one hand on the seat while I tighten it. There's no need to climb in the seat or have sixteen people hold it down while you install a seat.

Other important notes and some of the most common mistakes I see:
-The chest clip belongs at the child's armpit level. NOT up by their neck, NOT down by their belly button.

This is correct:

11-17-1- 018

This is not:

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Properly positioning the chest clip is so important because it keeps the harness straps even across the body - when the chest clip is that low there isn't anything holding those harness straps and in the force of a crash the child would fly out of the harness.

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I didn't loosen the straps at all for this picture, and with the chest clip that low I could easily push aside the harness straps off his shoulders.

-A car seat strap is too loose if you can pinch the strap vertically at the collar bone and grab anything, like this:

11-17-1- 027

If you can't grab anything, it's properly tightened.

-If the child is rear facing, the straps need to be at or BELOW their shoulders. If a child is forward facing, the straps need to be at or ABOVE their shoulders. This has to do with the dynamic of how force is applied in a rear versus forward facing crash.

-Car seats expire 6 years from the date of manufacture. It's not a ploy to make you buy more car seats. It's because they're made of plastic and the plastic deteriorates and after time it can become brittle and typically what happens with an old car seat is that the harness will actually rip through the back of the seat and the child comes out of the seat.

-Kids shouldn't be buckled into a car seat wearing anything heavier than a light sweatshirt. Winter coats/blankets, etc all put way too much compression room between the child and the harness straps. If you have to loosen the harness straps from their normal position to buckle the child - their clothing is too bulky.

This is a little demonstration I do with parents a lot, I buckled my son in the car seat wearing his coat and tightened the straps:

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He looks fine, right?

Not so much. Then I took his coat off and put him back in the seat without adjusting the straps:

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THAT is how much I had to loosen the straps in order to get him in the seat in his coat. That is how much movement your child will have in a crash wearing a coat because the plush of the coat is going to compress instantly in the force of a crash.

If you really feel like it's important for your child to wear a coat in the car, you can buckle them in and put the coat on backwards over top, like this:

11-17-1- 041

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His straps are still nice and tight underneath.

I live in Colorado and we have plenty of cold winter weather here. I always put my son in a hat and a fleece jacket that I don't have to loosen the harness straps at all in order to buckle him in while wearing it. If it's really cold I keep a blanket in the car that I can put on his legs, but to be very honest the car warms up in a few minutes and I don't see it as a big deal.

-The best place, if it's available, for a child to ride is in the center of the back seat. It will be the furthest from impact in the event of a crash. Obviously that's going to be impossible for families with multiple children, certain vehicles, or I often see small women that have a hard time hefting a toddler or an infant car seat into the middle seat and getting them properly buckled. Proper installation and use trump positioning in the vehicle every single time. Every situation is different, so regardless of where the seat is positioned, it's most important that it's installed and used correctly.

-It's not a good idea to use any of the aftermarket products that are sold for car seats. Infant positioners, strap covers, BundleMes, etc etc. They often interfere with the proper use of the seat and are not crash tested with the seat. Many of them also don't meet flammability standards either, which is important when you're talking about a product that might be right next to your child in a car crash. My beef with BundleMe is twofold: 1. they go behind the child and create the same compression principle I was discussing with the winter coat, and 2. they get extremely warm. Newborns and young infants aren't great at regulating their body temperature, and it is very easy for them to be overheating. The BundleMe is GREAT for using in a stroller if you're outside in cooler temperatures, but they're just not a good idea for use in a vehicle. The best rule of thumb is that if it didn't come in the box with your car seat, don't use it.

If you haven't already done it, please go here: http://www.nhtsa.gov/cps/cpsfitting/Index.cfm to find a local fitting station in your area. It's completely free, and it'll take 20 or 30 minutes of your time to have a technician go over your seat with you. I can give lots of information and post pictures all day long but I can't be totally effective without a hands on inspection and discussion of your particular situation.

I'm not terribly familiar with Canada's car seat safety programs, but I did some Googling and this looks to be a very helpful database for Canadians to find a car seat inspection station: http://www.tc.gc.ca/eng/roadsafety/safedrivers-childsafety-seat-clinics-1058.htm

Also, you can go here: http://www.recalls.gov/list.html and scroll down to the bottom for the NHTSA email mailing list to receive emails when there are car seat recalls and safety notices. If you haven't registered your child's car seat, do it TODAY. That is the only way they can contact you in the event of a recall.


Thank you so much to Emma for sharing this incredibly thorough post! I hope you're all feeling super confident about your car seats now -- just one more thing we can do to keep our little ones safe!

Take care!

NOTE: As mentioned in the comments, this has been written from a US standpoint, so please keep in mind that not everything in this post may pertain to Canada, or other countries. Thank you & stay safe!