A car seat is one of the most crucial pieces of safety equipment you'll ever use, so shouldn't it be simple for even a sleep-deprived parent to install? Unfortunately, many moms and dads don't realize they're making dangerous mistakes.
"Despite design improvements, parents still find car seats very confusing," says pediatrician Benjamin Hoffman, MD, a certified child passenger safety technician. "I've done more than 4,000 seat checks and seen only 13 seats that were installed properly."
We at Parents realize it's no small task to get every detail correct. You have to know exactly when your child has outgrown his seat, buy a new one that fits him perfectly (and master a new set of installation guidelines), get the strap placement just right, and much more. It's enough to make you think you need a PhD in engineering to figure it all out, but we're here to help.
"The good news is that car seats are extraordinarily effective," says Parents advisor Dennis R. Durbin, MD, director of research for emergency medicine at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "When you use one correctly, you can be confident that your child will be likely to survive a crash with little or no injury."
The best place to start? Find out whether you're making any of these mistakes — and fix them today.
Test your seat: With both hands, grasp the car seat at the base. You shouldn't be able to move the safety seat side-to-side or front-to-back more than 1 inch when pulled at the belt path. If you can, it's not tight enough. This is the number-one mistake parents make, according to car-seat inspectors.
The danger: In a collision, a child in a loose seat could crash into the back of the front seat and seriously injure her face or head.
Fast fix: Read the car seat’s instruction manual and the portion of your vehicle’s owner manual on car seat installation. Every car seat needs to be installed using either the LATCH system or a locked seat belt to secure it in place. If you choose to use a seat belt to install your car seat, place your knee in the seat, and put all your weight into it (use your arm for an infant seat), tightening the seat belt as much as possible. Then lock the seat belt — a step that many parents miss.
Test your seat: "If, after you've tightened your child into his car seat, you can still pinch the fabric of the harness straps between your fingers, the harness is too loose," says Stephanie Tombrello, executive director of SafetyBeltSafe U.S.A., in Torrance, California.
The danger: "A child who's loose in his harness can easily come out of his seat in a crash," Tombrello says. The child could then be severely injured if he hits part of the car's interior or another passenger. The worst-case scenario: the child is ejected from the vehicle altogether.
Fast fix: Tighten the harness. Keep in mind that the straps should be snug and have no slack.
Test your seat: All children should remain rear-facing until they have reached the maximum height or weight capacity of the car seat, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Previously, the AAP specified children should remain rear-facing at least to age 2, but the new recommendation removes the specific age milestone.
The danger: The bones that protect an infant's spinal cord are still forming. When a child is rear-facing, his back — the strongest part of his body — can better absorb the immense forces of a crash. Facing forward, an infant's relatively heavy head can catapult forward, causing his underdeveloped spine to expose his spinal cord and putting him at risk of paralysis or death.
Fast fix: Follow the rules. Keep your baby rear-facing until he's reached the maximum height or weight limit of the seat.
Test your seat: Make sure the seat is at the correct angle so your child's head does not flop forward. Check the instructions to find out the correct angle for your seat and how to adjust the angle if needed. All rear-facing seats should have built-in angle indicators or adjusters, according to HealthChildren.org.
The danger: An infant's airway is very narrow — about the diameter of a soda straw. If your rear-facing seat leans too far forward, your baby's disproportionately heavy head could fall forward, cutting off her airway so she can't breathe.
Fast fix: While most rear vehicle seats are sloped toward the back of the car for the comfort of adult passengers, safety seats are designed to be installed on a flat surface. However, many safety seats are equipped with an adjustable pedestal to overcome this. If yours doesn't have one, do what technicians do at car-seat checks:
"We place sections of a cut-up swimming-pool noodle under the area where the baby's feet rest," says San Diego police officer Mark McCullough, a certified child-passenger-safety instructor. "Tightly rolled-up towels also work well."
RELATED: 7 Tips for Buying a Newborn Car Seat
Test your seat: The harness chest clip should be at the center of the chest, even with your child's armpits. The clip assures that the harness straps are in the right place.
The danger: When the harness chest clip is in the wrong place, the straps can easily slip off a child's shoulders, and the child is at risk of being ejected from her seat in a crash.
Fast fix: Parents often move the clip as they maneuver their child out of the seat, so check the clip's position every time you buckle up.
Test your seat: Most convertible car seats are designed with three sets of harness slots: The lower two sets are for the rear-facing position, and the top set is for the forward-facing position. On most seats, once the seat faces forward, only the uppermost slots have the extra reinforcement necessary to keep the harness secure in a collision. Yet parents often turn the seat around without adjusting the straps.
The danger: When the child faces forward, a harness in the lower slots can break through the seat during a collision.
Fast fix: Move the shoulder straps to the slots that are at or above your child's shoulders, or position at or closest to (above or below, based on rear or forward facing) the child's shoulders. Check the instructions that came with the seat to be sure you are positioning the shoulder straps correctly. You may have to adjust the recline angle of the seat so that it sits more upright in your vehicle. Check the instructions to be sure.
Take the test: According to the AAP, when children exceed the limits of a forward-facing car seat (many seats can accommodate children up to 65 pounds or more), they should use a belt-positioning booster seat until the vehicle’s lap and shoulder seat belt fits properly. This is often when they have reached at least 4 feet 9 inches in height and are 8 to 12 years old.
The danger: An adult seat belt used by itself doesn't properly restrain a child because it crosses her body at the wrong spots: high up on her belly, high up across her shoulder — and sometimes even across the neck. Children often move the shoulder belt behind them because it's uncomfortable. In a crash, a child who's too small for a seat belt can sustain massive internal-organ damage or head and spinal injuries, and can even be ejected.
Fast fix: Go out and buy your child a booster seat today! And a reminder: Kids younger than 13 years should always ride in the back seat, never the front.
RELATED: Best Booster Seats
Test your seat: Over the past ten years, millions of safety seats have been recalled, but many of them are not repaired or replaced. Check yours against the list of recalled seats maintained by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). You'll need to know your safety seat's model name, model number, and manufacture date, all of which are on the seat.
The danger: Car-seat recalls occur for a variety of reasons, including faulty latches and flammable seat fabric. While some recalled seats don't pose a fatal danger, many do. A faulty buckle could easily lead to disaster.
Fast fix: If you discover that your seat has been recalled, contact the manufacturer for further instructions. And never buy a car seat at a garage sale or a secondhand store, since it may have been recalled or involved in a collision.