5 Most Common Car Seat Mistakes And How to Avoid Them

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 
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I remember when I was a brand-new mom and a friend of mine, upon seeing how my baby was strapped into his car seat, gave me some gentle advice: “You know, the harness clip is too low. It needs to be right at his armpit level.” She adjusted it for me and smiled. Feeling a little defensive, I said, “Oh, come on, it doesn’t matter that much, does it?”

She then (gently, again, because she’s a doll) explained to me that, yes, it does matter — very much. She explained what would happen to my baby’s little body if there was a crash (i.e., he’d go flying out of the car seat), and that even though these things might seem arbitrary or overprotective, they absolutely are not when you are talking about life and death issues for your kids.

Well, she certainly put me in my place, and since then, I definitely make sure my kids’ harnesses are properly positioned, and I have become quite a stickler about car-seat safety in general. And I damn well should be. According to the CDC, car crashes are a leading cause of death in children. And so, call me a overprotective, overzealous, or any other name in the book, but making sure my kids are safe in the car is one of my top priorities as a parent.

Besides the harness-strap-positioning issue, there are a couple of other very common mistakes that parents make when it comes to car-seat safety, and most are easily remedied. Here are some of the most common ones:

1. Not installing the car seat correctly

In order to properly install a car seat, you have to make sure that it is a proper fit for your particular car; that you are using the anchors/LATCH system/seat belts properly; that you are installing it in the right direction (rear-facing or forward-facing); and that all the straps are tight enough and locked into the right position. If just hearing all that gives you an anxiety attack (it can’t just be me!), do yourself a favor and have your car seat inspected by a professional before you strap your kid into it. Most inspections are free, and you can search for a nearby inspection station at

2. Incorrect use of the harness and straps

Besides incorrect positioning of the harness clip (again, it should be at armpit level), the straps should not be too loose or too tight. You can perform the “pinch test” to check the tightness of the straps; if you can pinch the straps between your fingers, the straps are too loose and need to be tightened. You also need to thread the straps through at the correct position. For rear-facing car seats, straps should be threaded through the slots at or below the child’s shoulders. For forward-facing seats, the straps should be threaded at or above your child’s shoulders. The Car Seat Lady (car-seat safety expert/guru) has an excellent video about how to properly strap in a rear facing baby, for all of you visual learners out there.

3. Turning your kid’s seat forward too soon

When my first son was born 10 years ago, the recommendation was to keep your baby in a rear-facing car seat for the first year of life or until that child reached 20 pounds. Well, my peanut didn’t reach the weight recommendation till he was close to 18 months, at which point we promptly turned him around. Turned out, we did it too soon anyway. In 2011, the Academy of American Pediatrics (AAP) revised its guidelines to say that babies should rear-face until their 2nd birthday at least or until they reach the height and weight limits for their car seats.

Dr. David Hill, a pediatrician and Chicco child-passenger-safety spokesperson, shared his thoughts about the importance of rear-facing till 2-years old with Scary Mommy. Dr. Hill says that kids are five times safer riding rear-facing in the event of an accident and recommends keeping children rear-facing as long as possible. If you are worried about your child’s legs getting smushed, Dr. Hill assures that children are a lot more flexible than adults and can usually comfortably cross or fold their legs while they sit rear-facing.

4. Dressing your child in bulky coats and sweaters

When I was a new mom, I had no idea that I wasn’t supposed to put my baby in a winter coat in the car seat. I mean, all I ever heard was that I was a bad mom if my baby got too chilled, and in winter, my car was an ice box, so why the hell wouldn’t I bundle him up? Well, it turns out this a HUGE no no. As Consumer Reports explains, bulky coats require you to loosen the straps on your child’s seat, and if there was a crash, your child’s harness would be too loose to provide effective protection. In other words, your child’s seat should always be adjusted to fit their body, not anything they are wearing on top of it. So what to do in freezing temps? Many of us dress our kids in warm, non-bulky sweaters (fleece is a favorite of mine), and then place their winter coats on top, once they are strapped in. Another alternative is a warm blanket placed on top of your child after they are strapped in.

5. Moving your kid into a booster too early

Although some booster seats advertise that they can be used for children as young as 3 years old, this is not the age bracket they are intended for. According to The Car Seat Lady, a child should only use a booster seat if they meet the following three criteria (and it must be all three of these at once!): They must be 4 or 5 years old, at least 40 pounds, and have the ability to keep the seat belt strap properly positioned across their chest for the duration of the trip.

Dr. David Hill, from Chicco, explains that five-point-harnesses are always safer than boosters, and he recommends keeping your child in one for as long as possible. “The harness is always safer than a booster,” says Dr. Hill. “Five-point harnesses spread the forces of a crash over a wider surface area of a child than does a seat belt (used with a booster seat) and provides more upper body protection so that the head and neck experience less force and movement. The seat belt only contacts the body over a narrow swath of chest, and the hips.”

Um, yeah, I probably put my first child in a booster way too soon. It turns out that there are plenty of car seats with five-point harnesses that are made for kids 4 and up. And while your older child may complain about still having to be strapped in, safety should always override concerns like that.

Now, I know all of this can be pretty overwhelming when you start out. While all the online tutorials and articles can be helpful, you will likely find the most peace of mind by visiting a car-seat safety clinic that is being led by a certified child passenger safety technician. You can find more information about CPSTs and where to find local events here.

And believe me, although we can’t protect our children from every possible awful thing in this world, I’m certain it will give you enormous relief to know you’ve done all you can to protect your child in the car.

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