By Jordyn Coalson
Certified Child Life Specialist
What if I told you that one short book could save your child’s life? Would you read it? Or would you risk it?
That one crucial book is your car seat manual, and unfortunately, it is often ignored by families when installing and using a car seat. Child restraints may be the bane of many parents’ existence, especially when it comes down to a tedious installation, but there is no denying that they are lifesavers when used correctly.
Proper child restraint use can reduce the risk of death across multiple age groups: 71 percent in infants, 54 percent in toddlers (ages 1-4), 45 percent for school-age children (ages 4-8), and proper seatbelt use in older children can cut the fatality risk in half. An estimated 46 percent of car seats and booster seats are used incorrectly, which can greatly reduce their effectiveness.
But do not fret. We are going to discuss the most common mistakes made with child restraints so that you can properly protect your most precious cargo.
- Beware of the LATCH limit – Check your manual, but most vehicles limit the weight your LATCH system can accommodate to 65 pounds – this includes your car seat and child.
- Seat is too loose – When installed correctly, there should be less than 1 inch of movement in any direction at the belt path.
- Projectiles and airbags – Always make sure all objects in your car are secured. Even seemingly harmless items, such as infant mirrors that attach to seats, can become deadly projectiles when in a crash. Also check to ensure that your car seat is not installed where there is an active airbag.
- Remember to tether – When you are turning around or installing a car seat to be forward-facing, you must always use the top tether included on the seat. It is a simple step to miss, but the tether greatly reduces movement in an impact.
- One or the other – Many caregivers believe that installing a seat with both a seat belt and LATCH system means a more secure install. However, unless your car seat manufacturer approves of it, this could be a dangerous choice. Using two installation systems could put additional pressure on your belt paths during a crash, making them more likely to fail.
Forward vs. Rear Facing
- Thirty percent of infants are turned forward-facing too soon – The bones that protect an infant’s spinal cord are still forming. When a child is rear-facing, their back, the strongest part of the body, can better absorb crash forces. Facing forward, an infant’s heavy head can catapult forward, causing their underdeveloped spine to expose their spinal cord, putting them at risk for severe injury.
- Proper seat choice – Choose a seat that is going to allow you the opportunity to rear face as long as possible! Two years is suggested, but there are affordable convertible seats on the market that accommodate rear facing up to 4 years! The longer, the better.
- Age AND weight – When turning around your seat, be sure to follow your car seat manufacturer’s requirements for both age and size, not either or. An older child may technically reach the age to forward-face, but if they don’t meet height and weight requirements, they should remain rear-facing.
- Recline angle – Pay close attention to your car seat’s recline. A seat that is tilted too far forward can obstruct an infant’s tiny airway. Most car seats will have recline angle indicators, such as bubble indicators, to guide you. The suggested recline is typically 30-45 degrees.
- Harness height – Check to make sure your child’s harness is at the correct height position. For rear-facing, the slots should be at or below the child’s shoulders. For forward-facing, the slots should be at or above the shoulders. The upper slots are often reinforced to withstand greater force for forward-facing children.
- Is it tight? – Pinch your child’s harness once they are secured in the seat. Can you pinch extra fabric on the straps? If so, it is not tight enough. Be sure to pay close attention to the harness at the hips, where extra fabric likes to hide.
- Don’t do the twist – A twisted harness can impact effectiveness.
- Chest clip height – The chest clip should sit high, at armpit level, across the breast bone. This ensures that crash forces are distributed across a strong part of the body, instead of leaving the stomach susceptible to injury. A loose harness or low chest clip can result in your child being ejected from the seat during an accident.
Other Helpful Tips
- Never use after-market add-on’s – Avoid strap covers, infant positioners and other add-on’s, unless approved by your seat manufacturer. They have not been crash tested with your seat and could impact effectiveness. This also includes placing blankets under your child.
- When to switch to a booster – Your child can switch to a belt positioning booster seat when they reach the height and weight limit of a forward facing seat. There are many combination booster seats that utilize 5-point harnesses and later convert to a belt positioning booster. Children should remain in a 5-point harness as long as possible, as they can greatly reduce forward movement during an impact. To fit properly in a belt positioning booster seat, a child must be able to sit up straight and use their seatbelt correctly for the duration of the ride, including while sleeping. This typically is not something children are ready for until at least 5 years old.
- When to ditch the booster – NC law says a child can move to a seat belt at age 8 or 80 pounds. However, there is a better way to test readiness. Your child should be able to sit up straight and put their feet on the car floor without slouching. Knees should naturally break over the edge of the seat. The shoulder belt should fit in-between the neck and shoulder. The lap belt should be over the child’s thighs, not belly.
If you ever have any questions about child restraint safety, please contact our WNC SafeKids Injury Prevention Specialists Vickie Killough and Beverly Hopps at (828) 213-5548. You can also go to a local fire department or contact Child Life Specialists Jordyn Coalson, Karah Martin, Amy Derchak or Kayla Davis, who are Certified Child Passenger Safety Technicians (CPST).