Car seat safety: Avoid 10 common mistakes

car seat beltCar seat safety isn’t child’s play. Understand 10 common mistakes parents often make when installing and using car safety seats.

1. Getting a used car seat without researching its history

If you’re considering a used car seat for your child, make sure the car seat:

Comes with instructions and a label showing the manufacture date and model number

  1. Hasn’t been recalled
  2. Isn’t more than six years old
  3. Has no visible cracks or missing parts
  4. Has never been in a moderate or severe crash
  5. If you don’t know the car seat’s history, don’t use it.

2. Placing the car seat in the wrong spot

The safest place for your child’s car seat is the back seat, away from active air bags. If the air bag inflates, it could hit the back of a rear-facing car seat — right where your child’s head is — and cause a serious or fatal injury. Vehicles with no back seat aren’t a good choice for traveling with children.

While side air bags improve safety for adults in side-impact crashes, placing a car seat next to a door with a side air bag may not be appropriate. Read your car seat manual for guidance on placing a car seat next to a side air bag. If you’re only placing one car seat in the back seat, place it in the center of the seat rather than next to a door.

3. Using the car seat as a replacement crib

A car seat is designed to protect your child during travel. It’s not for use as a replacement crib in your home. A 2009 study showed that sitting upright in a car seat may compress a newborn’s chest and lead to lower levels of oxygen. Although it’s essential to buckle your child into a car seat during travel, don’t let your child sleep or relax in the car seat for long periods of time out of the car. Airway obstruction — even when it’s mild — can impair a child’s development.

4. Incorrectly buckling up your child

It can be hard at first to properly buckle a child in a car seat. Before you install the seat, read the manufacturer’s instructions and the section on safety seats in the vehicle’s owner’s manual. Make sure the seat is tightly secured – allowing no more than one inch of movement from side to side or front to back – and facing the correct direction. Give yourself extra time before every trip to secure your child in the seat correctly.

If you’re using an infant-only seat or a convertible seat in the rear-facing position — a common choice for newborns — keep these tips in mind:

  1. Use the harness slots described in the car seat’s instruction manual, usually those at or below the infant’s shoulders.
  2. Thread the straps through the shell and pad.
  3. Place the harness or chest clip even with your child’s armpits — not the abdomen or neck. Make sure the straps and harness lie flat against your baby’s chest and over his or her hips with no slack.

Position the car seat’s carrying handle according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Don’t hang anything from the handle.

5. Improperly trying to keep your child upright

Recline the car seat according to the manufacturer’s instructions so that your newborn’s head doesn’t flop forward. Many seats include angle indicators or adjusters. You can also place a tightly rolled towel or newspaper under the seat’s front edge to achieve the right angle.

If your baby slouches down or to the side of the car seat, place padding around — never under or behind — him or her. Don’t use any additional products unless they came with the car seat or from the manufacturer.

6. Moving to a forward-facing car seat too soon

Resist the urge to place your child’s car seat in the forward-facing position just so you can see his or her smile in your rearview mirror. Riding rear-facing is recommended until a child reaches 30 to 40 pounds (14 to18 kilograms) and varying heights. You can start with a convertible seat or switch from an infant-only seat to the convertible variety as your baby grows.

When your child reaches the rear-facing weight or height limit of the convertible seat, you can face the seat forward. When you make the switch:

  1. Install the car seat according to the manufacturer’s instructions, using either the seat belt or Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children (LATCH) system.
  2. 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.
  3. Adjust the harness straps so that they’re threaded at or above your child’s shoulders. Make sure the harness fits snugly.

Remember, the back seat is still the safest place for your child’s car seat.

7. Dressing your child in bulky outerwear

Harness straps may not provide enough protection over a baby’s bulky outerwear. If it’s cold, dress your baby in a lightweight jacket and hat. Buckle the harness snugly and then tuck a blanket around your baby for warmth. Save the bulky outerwear for outdoors.

8. Moving to a booster seat too soon

Older children need booster seats to help an adult safety belt fit correctly — but is your child ready for a booster seat? Here’s how you’ll know:

  1. Your child has topped the weight or height limits of the current car seat – often from 40 to 80 pounds (18 to 36 kilograms) and varying heights.
  2. Your child’s shoulders are above the car seat’s top harness slots.
  3. Your child’s ears have reached the top of the car seat.

9. Incorrectly using a booster seat

Booster seats must be used with a lap and shoulder belt – never a lap-only belt. Make sure the lap belt lies low and snug across your child’s upper thighs and that the shoulder belt crosses the middle of your child’s chest and shoulder. Some booster seats come without backs. Backless booster seats also must be used with a lap and shoulder belt – never a lap-only belt. If your vehicle has low seat backs or doesn’t have a headrest to protect your child’s head and neck in a crash, consider using a high back booster that fits your child’s height and weight.

10. Using the vehicle safety belt too soon

Most kids can safely use an adult seat belt sometime between ages 8 and 12. Here’s how you’l know that your child is ready:

  1. Your child reaches a height of 4 feet 9 inches (nearly 1.5 meters).
  2. Your child sits against the back of the seat with his or her knees bent comfortably at the edge of the seat. The lap belt rests flat across your child’s upper thighs, and the shoulder belt rests on your child’s shoulder – not on the neck or throat.

Make sure your child doesn’t tuck the shoulder belt under his or her arm or behind his or her back. Don’t allow children to share seat belts or use products that claim to make a seat belt fit better.

There’s a lot you need to know to keep your child safe on the road – but don’t panic. Consult your child’s doctor for information on how to select and properly use a car seat. If you have questions or need help installing a car seat, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration can help you find a car seat inspection station. Be sure to follow the child passenger safety laws in your state.

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