Are you making a car seat mistake that could harm your baby? Chances are, the answer is yes.
baby girl in car seat
Credit: FOAP

As parents, we want to believe we are doing it right; from feeding our babies to keeping them safe. But, a new study finds an alarming 95 percent of us are making at least one major mistake when we install infant car seats and position our newborns in them. Some of these mistakes may increase the chances of the baby getting injured while we're driving, even without a crash.

The study, published in the Journal of Pediatrics, looked at nearly 300 parents, mostly moms between the ages of 25 and 34, who were surveyed, and also observed by certified child passenger safety technicians as they installed their seats and positioned their babies. Believe it or not, just 5 percent of the families made no mistakes. And half of the participants had older children! So it's not as if this was their first time attempting to decode a car seat instruction manual.

But don't feel too bad, parents. Study author Benjamin Hoffman, MD, a certified car seat technician for almost 20 years, says, "Mistakes are common because car seats can be complicated. The manual for the car seat does explain all the recommendations, but they can be hard to understand, and many people may not read them for a variety of reasons."

Based on recommendations from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the researchers found these mistakes:

  • 86 percent of families positioned the newborn incorrectly in the seat.
  • 77 percent incorrectly installed the seat.
  • More than a third positioned the harness retainer clip too low.
  • 69 percent of babies had a loose harness.
  • Two out of 5seats had an incorrect recline angle.
  • A third used the incorrect harness slot.
  • One in 5families installed a non-regulated seat.
  • 44 percent of seats moved more than 1inch side to side.
  • Half of the seats that used seat belts did not have the seat belt retractor locked.
  • About a third had lower anchors that were too loosely attached.
  • Many used the incorrect seat belt path.
  • Many also incorrectly used lower anchors in the middle seat.
  • 11 percent had twisted straps, which can decrease straps' effectiveness in restraining a child in a crash.

"A number of studies have shown that an incorrect angle of recline can lead to injury to babies, especially if too upright, as the baby's head can flop forward and obstruct the airway," Dr. Hoffman explains, addressing the seemingly less serious errors. "Having a chest clip too low can allow the baby to slump, and there have been cases of strangulation as a result." And a 1-inch wiggle might not seem like a big deal, but: "If there is more than 1 inch, the seat moves, allowing the crash forces to be transmitted to the baby, not the car or the seat itself, and leads to injury."

Wow, infant seats are like rocket science!

So perhaps it's not so surprising that half of the study participants made five or more errors, while just one in five made a single error. Eighty-nine percent of the errors would be considered "critical," meaning they may increase a child's risk of injury in a crash. But more than 90 percent of the errors were "serious" in nature, and could lead to a baby being harmed during normal travel.

Incidentally, lower-income parents who were less educated made the most mistakes.

The takeaway: According to Hoffman, hospitals need to do more to educate parents about proper infant car seat safety. For more safety tips on the proper installation of your infant seat, visit

Melissa Willets is a writer/blogger and a mom. Follow her on Twitter (@Spitupnsuburbs), where she chronicles her love of exercising and drinking coffee, but never simultaneously.