September 13, 2022

9 common car seat mistakes

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Make sure that precious cargo is transported safely with these 9 tips for car seat safety.

Would it surprise you to know that more than 82 percent of all car seats are installed incorrectly? Child passenger safety technicians see many common car seat safety mistakes and get the wonderful opportunity to work with families to make sure their most precious cargo is transported safely.

Here we are sharing typical car seat mistakes we see, and some simple changes that can help prevent a serious injury.

1. Car seats that are too loose on the seat belt.

If a seat is correctly installed, you should not be able to move it more than one inch from side to side or front to back if you pull on it from where the seat belt goes through the bottom of the seat. A child-passenger-safety technician trained in car-seat installation can show you how to get a correct and secure installation.

 2. Straps meant to keep the child in the seat are too loose.

The harness straps should fit snugly with no slack. If they are too loose, a child can be thrown out of the seat if you are in a crash. To test, use your thumb and index finger; try pinching the straps vertically at the level of your child’s collarbone when they are in the seat. You should not be able to pinch any harness webbing.

Avoid putting bulky clothing on children, such as a thick winter coat, before you put them in a car seat.

Also, do not use an infant car seat insert unless it comes with the seat when you buy it.

3. Incorrectly positioned harness straps.

The shoulder straps holding your child in the seat should start, in the back, at or below your child’s shoulder level if your child is in a rear-facing seat.

The shoulder straps should start in the back at or above your child’s shoulder level in a forward-facing seat. Be sure to check the straps often, as children grow quickly and the straps’ position can be easily overlooked.

4. Not using the top tether.

An Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study found that only half of car seats were attached by the top tether and that most parents didn’t think it was necessary. The top tether is actually very important for car seat safety because it significantly reduces a child’s risk for head and other injuries in a crash. Check the vehicle and child restraint manuals for limits on tether and anchor use.

5. Turning forward too soon.

For the best protection, follow car seat guidelines and keep your baby in a rear-facing infant or convertible car seat for as long as possible, until they reach the highest weight or height the seat allows. This is usually after age 2.

6. Placing toys, mirrors or other items in or around a car seat.

Avoid using any after-market products with your car seat. Rarely will they have been crash-tested with the seat and they may change how the seat works in a crash. These items also can become dangerous projectiles in a crash. Store all loose items in a console, pocket or the trunk. Some child-seat manufacturers make products specifically designed for the seats and come with the seat at the time of purchase.

7. Using an old or second-hand seat.

Used seats are unlikely to come with the manufacturer’s instructions (which are important to help you with the correct installation). Used seats may be missing parts. They may have been involved in crashes (even unseen damage can affect the seat’s functioning), may not meet today’s safety standards, or may have been recalled due to faulty design. In addition, car seats expire because their parts break down over time. To find a seat’s expiration date, look for a sticker on the seat with manufacturing date or expiration date. If you can’t find it, contact the car seat manufacturer; you can look the company up on Google.

8. Getting rid of a booster seat too early.

A seat belt that doesn’t fit properly can do more harm than good, penetrating internal organs, damaging the spinal cord or, if the shoulder strap is improperly fitted, seriously injuring a child’s head if you are in a collision. It is important to keep your child in the booster seat until the seat belt fits properly at the level of their hip bones. Because seat belts are designed for people who are at least 4-feet, 9-inches tall, that may not be until your child is 12 years old or older.

Take a few extra minutes to check your car seats and make sure your little one is safe!  If you need help making sure your child’s car seat is installed correctly, call a child passenger safety technician or to schedule an appointment.

9. Not registering your car seat.

Although child restraint systems undergo testing and evaluation, it is possible that a child restraint could be recalled. Registration cards on car seats are there for one reason: to provide the manufacturer with contact information to reach the owner if the car seat turns out to have a safety defect or problem. The government standard requires that the consumer be contacted for all recalled car seats on the market, even if you bought it six to 10 years ago. Make sure you complete that form and mail it in. You can also go online and register your seat with the manufacturer.

Take a few extra minutes to check your car seats and make sure your child’s seat and straps are as safe as possible.

One more note: Many parents think that the handle on an infant seat has to be pushed back when the carrier is in the car. This is not always true. Many carriers are safe with the handle in other positions in the car. Check the manual that comes with your child’s seat to know which position is safest for the handle.

Holly Hanson, M.D., is assistant professor of pediatrics in the Division of Pediatric Emergency Medicine at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt.

Vanderbilt’s Children’s After-Hours Clinics offer the convenience of a walk-in clinic with care provided by a board-certified pediatrician from Children’s Hospital. No appointment is necessary, but we recommend calling your pediatrician first. Learn more about services for Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt After-Hours Clinics.

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Holly Hanson, M.D.

Holly Hanson, M.D., is assistant professor of pediatrics in the Division of Pediatric Emergency Medicine at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt. She is board certified in Pediatrics and Pediatric Emergency Medicine.