8 Common Car Seat Mistakes (and How to Avoid Them)

For new parents, that first car ride with a new baby is nothing short of terrifying. A million questions plague you, no matter how short the trip. Am I driving too fast? Is the sun in their eyes? Should I turn the air conditioning down?

But despite all the concern and checking — and double- or even triple-checking — sometimes things fall by the wayside. That’s when car seat mistakes happen, says David Cole, MS, OTR/L, CPST, manager of acute care physical and occupational therapy services and supervisor of the Child Passenger Safety Program at Beverly and Addison Gilbert Hospitals.

Ask a Human, Not a Search Engine

One of the biggest mistakes we all make is trusting everything we read online.

“There’s a lot of information on the internet, and not all of it is accurate,” Cole said. “It can be hard for parents to weed through the misinformation — such as old information, companies trying to sell things and opinions of people who may not have the training to make informed recommendations — to get to what is correct.”

So what’s a caregiver to do? For starters, turn to an expert, not Google, for questions about getting kids from point A to point B safely.

“It’s best to contact a certified child passenger safety technician (CPST),” Cole said. “A CPST has to recertify every two years by continuing education, performing community car seat checks and getting their installations checked by an instructor. This level of due diligence ensures that certified CPSTs are up to date with current research and recommendations.”

Search for a CPST in your area here, or find a car seat check station in Massachusetts here.

Common Car Seat Mistakes to Avoid

Beyond relying on potentially bad information online, Cole says the mistakes he sees are often preventable. Are you making one of these eight common mistakes?

1. Not Getting Things Tight Enough

People tend to leave things too loose in two areas: the car seat base (during installation) and the harness (during day-to-day use).

“When installing the base, it should take effort to get it tight enough,” Cole said. “Attempt to depress the car seat into the vehicle seat when tightening and the rebound of the springs in the vehicle seat pushing back up will help with getting a tight installation.”

“When the seat’s installed properly, the base/seat along the belt path should have no more than 1 inch of movement side-to-side. It is typically normal for other areas of the seat to have more than 1 inch of movement such as at the top or side away from the belt path. It is best to check your owners manual as some car seats vary,” Cole said.

For the harness, the pinch test is the perfect evaluation for tightness.

“This is where you try and pinch the harness lengthwise above the chest clip,” Cole said. “If you can pinch the harness strap, then it’s too loose and should be tightened.”

2. Installing a Seat With a LATCH System and a Seat Belt

Installing a car seat with both a LATCH system (lower anchors and tethers for children) and a seat belt isn’t safe, the American Automobile Association (AAA) says. You might think that having two locking systems is better than one. Not so.

“The theory is that using lower anchors and the seat belt together is not crash-tested, so it’s not known how it will respond in a car accident,” Cole said. “It is possible that using both plays tug of war against each other and makes it difficult to get an appropriate and tight car seat installation. In this case, less is more.”

Instead, choose one securing method and stick with it. “Both the LATCH and seat belt provide equal crash protection provided each method is installed correctly. Typically you should pick the method that gives you the best and tighest installation,” Cole said.

Note that many cars do not allow the use of lower anchors in the middle sitting position, check your vehicle owners manual before installing your car seat.

3. Using an Aftermarket Product

It might be tempting to accessorize the car seat with products from a big-box store, but seatback mirrors, window shades and car seat inserts could do more harm than good.

“The majority of these items are not crash-tested and can be dangerous in the event of an accident,” Cole said. “Mirrors and window shades can become projectiles that strike passengers, and inserts can change the infant’s position in a car seat and make it difficult to get the harness tight enough.”

Plus, there’s the distraction factor: Staring at a sweet, cooing baby in the backseat mirror is distracted driving, and that puts everyone at risk.

4. Not Replacing the Car Seat After a Collision

You should replace a car seat after every accident, even a minor fender bender. Many insurance companies will cover the cost of a new one.

“Historically, there were ways to assess a car seat to determine if it was damaged in a car accident through visual inspection and asking questions, like, ‘Did the airbag go off?'” Cole said. “But now, the best practice is to replace the car seat whenever there is an accident. Many accidents, even minor ones, can cause microscopic damage to the shell and harness of a car seat that can’t be seen by visual inspection.”

5. Thinking the Middle Seat Is the Safest

“Historically, you’d find that the middle position was considered the safest,” Cole said. “But with the advances in side crash testing technology and the utilization of safety glass throughout the entire vehicle, this is not necessarily accurate anymore.”

Instead, do what works for your family, he says.

“For example, if you often park your car on the street, it may be most convenient to have the child on the passenger’s side,” Cole said, “because you would be unloading him or her onto the sidewalk, rather than into the street.”

6. Keeping Kids’ Big Winter Coats On When Buckling Them In

Infants have a hard time regulating their body temperature and can get cold easily. But big winter coats can compromise the snugness of a car seat by making it hard to pull the harness tightly enough, Consumer Reports says.

Instead, drape a blanket over your baby when transporting them outdoors and use the vehicle’s heater to keep things warm while driving. The time it takes to transport a child from a warm building to a warm vehicle is typically not long enough to cause a concern, especially for older children. If this is a concern or if you will be outside for an extended period you can dress your child for the cold weather and once in the warm vehicle remove any bulky clothing like a heavy jacket or snow suit before driving to your destination.

7. Letting Older Kids Ride Shotgun Too Soon

“Kids want to transition to forward-facing [car seats] to using a booster and then to just the seat belt quicker than they should because they see it as a rite of passage or because their friends are,” Cole said. “One misconception is that these transitions should happen at a specific age, but the more important measures are the child’s height and weight because children are different sizes at different ages.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics is a good resource for safety tips for parents; it offers specific guidelines for when children have outgrown their car seats. Set some ground rules based on those guidelines, then get someone else to back you up on those rules.

“Take your child to a check station and have an authority figure in a uniform — like a policeman, firefighter, or hospital worker — tell them they’re not ready,” Cole said. “And make sure the entire team is on the same page: mom, dad, grandparents, aunts, uncles, babysitters and friends.”

8. Only Getting the Seat Inspected Once

Yes, you should get your car seat inspected by a professional when installing it for the first time, but it’s also a good idea to get the seat inspected regularly.

“It’s not a bad idea to consult with a professional when your child goes through important car seat milestones, like when you change the car seat type, transition from rear-facing to forward-facing, and move into and out of a booster seat,” Cole said. “A child passenger safety technician has unique knowledge that can help support parents when making these important decisions, so these transitions are made according to best practice and safety recommendations.”

By following these safety tips for parents, you can make things right for that little back-seat rider.

Ready to Get Your Seat Inspected for Free?

Beverly Hospital and Addison Gilbert Hospital have three certified child passenger safety technicians who will perform free car seat inspections by appointment. Appointments can be made Monday through Friday. You don’t have to be a Lahey patient to take advantage, either. To schedule your inspection, email BEV-AGH_ChildPassengerSafety@lahey.org.

*The content on this website is for informational purposes only and is not medical advice. Please consult a physician regarding your specific medical condition, diagnosis and/or treatment.

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