Winter Car Seat Safety Check: 10 Things to Do Today!
It's winter! Time for snowmen, hot cocoa, and snuggling with your little ones under the blanket. It's also time for bundling up, thick winter jackets, and safety checks for your car seat!
In many parts of the country, winter brings with it icy roads and hazardous driving conditions. At the same time, bulky winter wear may necessitate some adjustments to car seats to ensure they are used as safely as possible. Combined, this makes winter the perfect time to take just a few minutes to make sure your child is as safe as possible when riding in his or her car seat.
First, it's important to know how to tell if your child's harness is tight enough, regardless if they're wearing a winter coat or a t-shirt. To make sure your child's harness is snug enough, perform the simple Pinch Test:
- While they are wearing normal clothes, secure your child in the car seat and buckle the harness as usual.
- Using your thumb and pointer finger, try to pinch one of the harness straps at your child's collarbone level.
If you're able to pinch the strap, the harness is too loose. You should not be able to pinch any excess webbing.
Now that you know what a properly snug harness looks like, you can check if your child's coat is acceptable to wear in a car seat:
- Secure your child in the car seat while wearing the coat in question.
- Properly tighten the car seat harness around your child until the harness webbing cannot be vertically pinched at your child's collarbone.
- Remove your child from the car seat WITHOUT loosening the harness system.
- Remove the coat and secure your child back in the car seat WITHOUT adjusting (loosening/tightening) the harness.
If the buckle and chest clip are still secure without the coat and the harness webbing CANNOT be vertically pinched at your child's collarbone, then the coat is acceptable. If the harness webbing CAN be vertically pinched, then the coat is too thick and should not be worn with the car seat.
If your child's coat is too bulky to be worn with the car seat, you may consider some of these alternatives for keeping your child warm in your vehicle:
- Preheat your vehicle
- Put a coat on your child backwards after the harness is properly tightened
- Drape a blanket over your child
- Consider a coat made out of very thin, but warm, material
As a mom of four, I've found a couple of things that can help make it easier to use car seats correctly. First, I'm a big fan of strollers that have car-seat attachments for infant seats.
A stroller, such as the City Select, allows car seats to be attached even when using a second seat or glider board for siblings. I also love car seat blankets that fit over infant seats, such as the 7 A.M. Enfant Car Seat Cocoon, which can keep the under-two crowd warm without the use of winter coats.
For children who have outgrown their infant seats, keeping a fleece or knit blanket in the car can help keep them warm without using a bulky coat.
Sarah Tilton, Britax Child Passenger Safety Advocacy Manager, recommends that all parents take the following 10 steps to ensure that they have installed and are using their car seat correctly.
#1: Check to See if Your Car Seat is Facing the Right Direction:
Children should travel rear facing for as long as possible. The AAP suggests that “infants and toddlers should ride in a rear-facing car safety seat as long as possible, until they reach the highest weight or height allowed by their seat. Most convertible seats have limits that will allow children to ride rear-facing for 2 years or more.” Rear-facing seats protect the neck and head by distributing the force of a frontal collision along the back of the seat.
Many car seats, such as the Britax Boulevard, are convertible, meaning they can be used as a rear-facing seat from birth and then can be converted to a forward-facing seat once the child is ready. These seats can also be used facing the rear if your child outgrows the infant seat before he or she turns 2.
Visit the American Academy of Pediatrics site to find out more.
#2: Check the Harness Straps
Some children don't like being strapped in too tightly, but the harness should be nice and snug. A perfect harness sits comfortably in a straight line without sagging and doesn't allow any slack.
To make sure the harness is snug enough, try the simple Pinch Test.
#3: Check the Harness Strap Height
All children are different and grow at different rates. That's why it's important to keep an eye on how the harness height fits your child's body. For the best protection in case of a crash, the tops of the harness straps should be located as follows:
- Rear-Facing Seat: At or slightly below your child's shoulders
- Forward-Facing Seat: At or slightly above your child's shoulders
#4: Check the Position of the Chest Clip
As the name implies, the proper position for the chest clip is on your child's chest, at armpit level. When properly positioned, this clip helps keep the harness straps up on your child's shoulders so they can do their job in keeping your child secure during a crash.
#5: Check Car Seat Installation
A car seat can only protect your child if it has been installed securely. A securely installed car seat should not move more than one inch side to side or front to back at the belt path. If you have trouble installing your car seat securely, try the following:
- Try installing the car seat in another seating position in your vehicle. For example, if you can't install it securely in the rear center seat, try an outboard position.
- Try installing the car seat using another installation method. For example, if you're not able to get a secure installation using the LATCH system, try installing with the vehicle seat belt and tether.
- Consider seeking help from a certified child passenger safety technician. You can find a technician or car seat check event in your area by visiting SafeKids.org.
#6: Check the LATCH Weight Limits
When it comes to installing car seats, using the LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for CHildren) system is a popular choice.
However, many caregivers aren't aware that the lower anchors have weight limits, and those limits can be different depending on which vehicle and car seat you have. So if you choose to install your child's car seat using lower anchors, be sure to check both the car seat user guide and your vehicle owner's manual for the weight limits and re-install the car seat using the vehicle seat belt when your child reaches the limit.
Recommendations for using the LATCH system changed in 2014. Once the weight of the child and car seat combined reaches 65 pounds, the LATCH system should no longer be used.
For more on the LATCH system and lower anchor weight limits, visit About LATCH.
#7: Check the Top Tether
Every inch counts when it comes to protecting your child during a crash. That's why we recommend that you use the top tether whenever possible. When forward facing, the use of a top tether can reduce the distance that your child's head moves forward during a crash by four to six inches.
#8: Check the Angle
When children are rear facing in a car seat, it's important for the seat to be installed in a reclined position to help keep baby's head and neck supported and airways clear.
The recline angle is especially important for young infants who are still developing head and neck control. So when you're installing your little one's car seat, be sure to refer to the user guide or labels on the side of the seat and install the seat at the recline angle indicated.
#9: Check the Car Seat's History and Recall History
It's important for every family to make smart choices that fit their unique needs and lifestyle, but when it comes to car seats that have been pre-owned or in an accident, use caution.
For your child's safety, as well as your own peace of mind, we recommend using a car seat that has been pre-owned or in an accident ONLY if you can answer all of the following questions:
- Has the car seat been in a crash?
- Has it been recalled?
- Are the user guide and all parts and pieces present?
- Are all the labels attached?
#10: Check the Expiration Date
When you put your child in a car seat, you should be able to trust that it will provide the best protection possible during a crash. Environmental factors like sunlight and heat can cause the materials in a car seat to degrade over time, so we recommend replacing car seats after they expire.
Most car seats have a product life between 6 and 10 years, depending on the model. This information can usually be found on a label on the car seat or in the user guide.
When you feel a chill in the air, taking a few moments to ensure you are using your car seat safely can go a long way towards ensuring your child's safety and your own peace of mind!