I’m not handy with a screwdriver, a hammer, power tools, or even magic markers. Fine motor skills are not my forte. Neither is following directions. I have mixed feelings about Christmas morning because I know it will require the assembly of a million and one different toddler toys.

Putting toys together is no fun, but if you ask me, installing the car seat is the worst part of having children. I’d take a public temper tantrum over having to install a car seat any day. Don’t get me wrong; car seats are a great and necessary invention. They’re only tricky to install because they’re so ingeniously engineered to keep your kids safe. On the other hand, not using your car seat correctly could put your child in real danger – and nobody wants to do that.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 75% of children are riding in car safety seats that aren’t properly installed or don’t fit correctly. Most of these parents probably don’t even know it. If you’re a parent of young children, here are some simple tips to help you determine if you’re using the car seat in the safest possible way.

Picking the right car seat

Car seats range from expensive to outrageously expensive. You can spend hundreds of dollars on a single car seat, but if it’s not the right one, your child won’t be safe. Here’s how you can pick the right seat.

  • Identify the right seat for your child’s size and age. The American Academy of Pediatrics has guidelines for determining the type of seat your child should be using. You can find them at HealthyChildren.Org.
  • Follow manufacturer guidelines. Always make sure your child is within the height and weight restrictions of the car seat.
  • Don’t buy a used car seat. Used car seats might seem like a tempting option if you’re preparing for baby on a budget. On the other hand, they’re dangerous because it’s not easy to verify that the seat is still safe for use. If the seat has been in a crash, is under recall, or if it’s past its manufacturer expiration date, it’s not safe for your baby. Just because the seat doesn’t look damaged doesn’t mean it isn’t, so don’t compromise your child’s safety to save a few dollars.

Installing your car seat

My best advice is to stay optimistic and follow instructions. I can’t make installing your car seat fun, and I can’t make it easy, but I can help you figure out if there’s something you’re doing wrong. Here are some ways to make sure you’re on the right track.

  • Use a LATCH system or seatbelts, NOT both. The LATCH system is a standardized child restraint system that allows child seats to be installed without seatbelts, supposedly to make installation easier. According to an About.com article by Heather Corley, a certified Child Passenger Safety Technician, car seats are designed to handle crashes in very specific ways. By using both the LATCH system and seatbelts, you could put too much stress on the car seat, causing dangerous breakage. If your car is equipped with LATCH, use LATCH. If it’s not, follow the manufacturer’s instructions to install the seat with seatbelts.
  • Use the tether. That long belt on the top of the car seat is the tether. Don’t forget to use it. The tether reduces the amount of movement from the top of the seat to prevent your child’s head from hitting the front seat in a crash. It could save your child from a brain or spinal cord injury.
  • Make sure the seat doesn’t move. Wiggle the seat around. If it moves more than one inch in any direction, you’ve done something wrong.
  • Get help. I’ve never taken a course in car seat installation, and you probably haven’t either. Did you know that there are certified professionals all around the United States who will check out your car seat, oftentimes for FREE?! Have your car seat inspected so that you’re not leaving your child’s safety up to chance. Visit this page to find a certified inspection station near you.

Using your car seat

If you’ve correctly installed your car seat, you can give yourself a pat on the back. Now it’s time to put all that hard work to good use.

  • Position the harness correctly. Buckling your child in isn’t just a matter of tightening the belt. There is a specific way that the harness needs to be positioned. Check out SaferCar.gov for instructions based on your type of car seat.
  • Avoid puffy winter coats. Puffy winter coats and snowsuits can compress with the force of a crash, creating slack in the harness. This allows the child to be ejected from the seat. Who knew a jacket could be so dangerous? In place of a winter coat, cover your children with blankets, or put their coats on backwards after they are buckled in. This will keep them safe and warm. Check out this great article for more information.
  • Buckle yourself in. I hate to admit it, but I don’t always do this when I’m in the back seat. By not wearing your seatbelt, you are endangering yourself, setting a bad example, and endangering your child. Why? Well, if you’re in a crash and you get thrown around the car, you’ll be hitting your child with all of your weight, multiplied by the force of the crash. This could easily kill your child, even if they’re buckled in correctly.
  • Use the seat every time. Even if it’s a two-minute drive around the block, use the car seat. Most crashes happen close to home. Your child’s life is more important than saving the two and a half minutes it takes to buckle them in.

There’s no doubt about it: Car seats are not an easy piece of equipment to work with. If you’re not sure about your installation job, contact a certified Child Passenger Safety Technician to inspect it. Car accidents are the top cause of fatal child injuries; by being a safe driver and using your car seat correctly, you can help keep your child safe.


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