Shopping Carts: Don't Put Your Car Seat On Top, And Buckle Up Your Toddler Too

by Elizabeth Broadbent
RapidEye / iStock

I don’t know how it happened. One second, my 3-year-old was sitting in the basket of the shopping cart. I turned around. I heard a crash. My 7-year-old had done something to the cart, flipping it over, on its side.

My younger son cried in fear, though he was sitting upright, fine, clinging to cart’s wire mesh. My older son stood flabbergasted, hands over his mouth, tears welling in his eyes. A passing woman rushed over. “Is he okay? Is he okay?” she demanded. My son nodded that he was fine, that he hadn’t hit his head. We heaved the cart upright again, and continued, shaken, on our Target trip.

It was that simple. I turned. Something happened in a split second, and the cart went over in a spectacular clatter with, terrifyingly, my son inside. And fortunately, no injuries.

But according to a 2014 study from the Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, 24,000 children under the age of 15 aren’t so fortunate. That’s how many kids are injured by shopping carts annually. Those numbers translate to an estimated 530,494 kids from 1990 to 2011: 66 kids a day hitting the emergency room because of an injury caused by one of America’s most ubiquitous shopping items.

In 2004, ASTM International (formerly the American Society for Testing and Materials) enacted new shopping cart safety standards, according to Consumer Reports. But the standards focused on labeling and restraints: printed warnings and safety belts. And the standards are voluntary, so many people don’t have access to the labels or the belts. Gary Smith, MD, Dr.PH, the director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and study co-author, says that, “Not only have the overall number of child injuries associated with shopping carts not decreased since implementation of the safety standards, but the number of concussions and closed head injuries is actually increasing.”

“The findings from our study show that the current voluntary standards for shopping cart safety” are not enough and need improvement, he continues. The suggested design changes include “improving […] restraint systems” and “placing the child seating area nearer to the floor.” This would reduce the risk of cart tip-over by lowering the center of gravity, dropping the number of fall injuries.

And 70.4% of shopping cart injuries come from falls. Other common injuries include running into or falling over the cart, cart tip-overs, and trapped arms and legs. Most frightening, according to the Washington Post, 78.1% of injuries were to the head. Soft-tissue injuries to the head were the most common diagnosis, but the yearly rate of both concussions and internal head injuries almost quadrupled. They rose from 3,483 in 1990 to 12,333 in 2011. “Most of this increase,” the Washington Post notes, “was among children age 4 and younger.”

It gets scarier.

According to Rosenbaum Injury Firm, kids younger than 5 years old accounted for 79% of head injuries, and 92% of those were among children younger than 1 year. And this doesn’t mean babies just get concussions. Many parents put their babies’ carriers on top of the cart, an inherently dangerous practice.

One Ohio mom posted photos of “her baby’s car seat toppled over […] after the wind blew her shopping cart over while the seat was balanced on top.” According to Parents for Safer Shopping Carts, “Personal infant carriers are not designed to be placed on shopping carts — leading to hundreds of accidents in retail stores each year. In fact, car seat manufacturers and grocery cart manufacturers both warn against using infant carriers with shopping carts.”

We all remember the heroic Home Depot worker whose miraculous save was caught on tape.

But all babies aren’t so lucky. In 2011 in Macon, Georgia, 3-month-old James Anderson was balanced in his carrier atop a shopping cart when it was pushed over a speed bump in the parking lot. His carrier fell off, and he perished. And according to the Injury Law Center, a 3-year-old died after he stood up in the cart, making it tip over.

So what can you do? There are several recommendations from Consumer Reports. First, you can leave your child home (yeah, right, thanks for that tip). See if someone can come with you to push a stroller (if only), or simply babywear (this is how many of us make it through). Shop at places with an enclosed play area (rare as rainbows, people). And finally, pay attention to how much your child is growing — once they can stand, make sure they are belted in securely, and try to keep them away from temptations like merchandise. Fat chance, I know.

Mostly, as the average mama, all we can do is babywear, use a stroller, or belt our kids in tight and pray. I’ll be praying — or making them walk.