Winter Coats in Car Seats Are Dangerous. So, How Can You Keep Your Child Warm This Winter?

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 
Images via The Car Seat Lady

By now, most of us have heard that it’s dangerous to dress our kids in puffy winter coats and put them in the car seat. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, let me give you the low-down.

As Alisa Baer, MD (awesome pediatrician and car seat safety expert behind The Car Seat Lady) explains on her site, most winter coats and snowsuits add about 4 inches of bulk to the car seat harness straps. Sleeping bags like the “Bundle Me” are also problematic because the thick layer behind the back adds extra slack to the harness.

What happens during a car crash is that the high impact of the crash pushes the air out of the puffy coat or snowsuit, thereby leaving your child too loosely harnessed. The harness is what keeps our kids safe in their seats, so it is vital that it fit securely. Children whose straps are four inches too loose are going to be propelled farther out of their seats during a crash, thereby leaving them more vulnerable to injury and death.

This is serious business, folks.

To see what I’m talking about, check out this video, courtesy of The Car Seat Lady:

OK, so now that you’re on board with the idea that dressing your baby or child in one of those puffy coats or snowsuits is a big, fat NOPE, let’s talk about what to do instead.

I know that for many parents, even if they’re totally on the “no puffy winter coat” train, it’s pretty hard to understand what the heck you are supposed to do when it’s negative 10 degrees outside and you want to dress your kid for an outing. And believe me, I’ve gotten some major side-eye from strangers and grandparents when they’ve seen my kids in their car seat without a coat.

If you’re at a loss as to how to safely and warmly dress your kid in their car seat, don’t worry: I’ve got you covered. There are actually some pretty simple and inexpensive ways to keep your child warm and safe in the car.

Ready? Here we go.

First of all, Dr. Baer (aka, The Car Seat Lady) wants all parents to know that keeping your child safe in the car seat during the winter does not mean freezing them to death. “No child should freeze in the car,” she told Scary Mommy. With this in mind, she offered some basic guidelines for how to plan your child’s car seat attire.

“The first thing is to layer properly beforehand, and to also know the length of the car ride,” said Dr. Baer. She explained that for shorter car rides—where the car will be cold for most of the trip—your child should be more warmly dressed. But that for longer car rides, you actually shouldn’t dress your child quite as warmly, because you don’t want to risk your young child overheating.

“Don’t freeze your child, and don’t roast them” is Dr. Baer’s motto.

In general, she says, it’s all about layering for the particular weather, length of the car ride, and comfort of the child. (However warmly or lightly you dress your child, she recommends you always have a winter coat in the car for safe-keeping in case your car breaks down.)

So what does layering in the car seat entail?

It’s all about dressing your kid from the inside out, and choosing tight, form-fitting clothing so that they won’t add bulk to the car seat, thus making the straps too loose. So, for example, dress your baby in a onesie and leggings. Top that with a long sleeve shirt, and a tight fitting sweater. Then add a thin, warm fleece jacket and pants (Dr. Baer highly recommends fleece because it’s usually thin enough, but also warm).

RELATED: These Toddler Rain Jackets Are So Cute, You Won’t Mind When Your Tot Goes Puddle Splashin’

If the weather calls for it, you can throw a blanket over your child. Dr. Baer says that it’s usually easiest to keep the legs warm with a blanket, because kids often push blankets off their chests (again, layer their torsos to say warm). Alternatively, you can put their bulky winter coat on backwards, with the back of the coat facing outward, and their arms through the sleeves — after your child is securely buckled in.

Dr. Baer recommends 2 to 4 thin, tight layers—again, making sure your kid stays warm, but not overheated. Here’s a handy-dandy picture she shared with us to illustrate some options:

Image via The Car Seat Lady

Okay, but what if you just really, really want to put your kid in a coat or snowsuit? It turns out there are actually safe options out there—warm coats and snowsuits that won’t add dangerous bulk to the car seat.

Again, the thinner and tighter the better, and Dr. Baer stresses that whatever coat you use, you must make sure it fits your child properly and snugly. So let’s talk options (and, as an aside: Dr. Baer has no financial ties to these products—she just recommends them because they are safe).

As for fleece, Dr. Baer recommends these from the Columbia clothing line: Steens Mt II for boys, and Benton Springs for girls. They are warm, under $30, and last for a long time. As for full body suits, the Snowtop II Bunting – Infant from Columbia works well, as long as its properly fitted, and the same goes for the Infant Oso One Piece from The North Face (this one is pricier, but looks warm and cozy).

If you are willing to invest a little more cash into a coat (and you could potentially hand it down to siblings or other family members to extend its value), you can try OneKid Road Coat, a coat designed specifically for car seats. These coats can warm your kid up in weather up to –25 degrees Fahrenheit. There’s even a vegan option. How cool is that?

These coats have a “double zipper system,” so that you can zip your kid up in the car with the inner zipper, without adding bulk to the car seat. Once out of the car, you can zip up the outer zipper, for extra warmth. Check these coats out, here:

Image via The Car Seat Lady

There are also some super-thin down coats that work well in the car. You know those “packable” coats that can be squished down into a little bag? Those are generally a good pick, as long as they are properly fitted and don’t sit past the waistline, as this can then bunch up under the hip straps and crotch buckle, contributing to extra unsafe bulk.

With all of these options—regardless of whether or not they’ve been officially approved—you should always test them to make sure they are safe. The test is super simple, and Dr. Baer recommends all parents do this, regardless of how they dress their child in the car. Here’s how:

  1. Dress your kid in their winter gear, tightening the harness of the car seat snugly around their clothing.
  2. Without loosening the straps, take your kid out of the seat, take off their winter gear, and then put them back in the seat.
  3. You will now see how much extra slack the winter gear has added. If the harness still fits snugly on your child, you are good to go. Otherwise, the coat or snowsuit is unsafe.

Okay, I know that is a lot to take in, and may feel overwhelming. Deep breaths.

Here’s the thing: It may all sound complicated at first, but the good news is that there are a ton of safe options out there this winter to keep your child warm and safe. It’s really not as daunting as it seems, I promise.

And it shouldn’t be a question of if you are going to follow these guidelines. Car seat safety isn’t an optional part of parenting. With car crashes the leading cause of death for children, your child’s life depends on you taking this stuff seriously. So let’s do this thing right.

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