Car seat safety: Avoid 10 common mistakes

Car seat safety isn't child's play. Understand 10 common mistakes parents make when installing and using car seats.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Knowing how to safely buckle up your child as he or she grows can be difficult. Check out 10 common mistakes parents often make when it comes to car seat safety — and how to avoid them.

1. Getting a used car seat without doing your homework

If you're considering a used car seat for your child, make sure the car seat:

  • Comes with instructions and a label showing the manufacture date and model number
  • Hasn't been recalled
  • Isn't expired or more than 6 years old
  • Has no visible damage or missing parts
  • Has never been in a moderate or severe crash

If you don't know the car seat's history, don't use it.

2. Placing the car seat in the wrong spot

The safest place for your child's car seat is the back seat, away from active air bags. If the car seat is placed in the front seat and the air bag inflates, it could hit the back of a rear-facing car seat — right where your child's head is — and cause a serious or fatal injury. A child who rides in a forward-facing car seat could also be harmed by an air bag.

If it's necessary for a child to travel in a vehicle such as a pickup truck that has only one row of seats, deactivate the front air bags or install a power switch to prevent air bag deployment during a crash.

If you're placing only one car seat in the back seat, install it in the center of the seat — if a good fit is possible — rather than next to a door to minimize the risk of injury during a crash.

3. Using the car seat outside of the car

A car seat is designed to protect your child during travel. It's not for use as a general seat or replacement crib in your home. Sitting in a car seat for lengthy periods poses health risks. It can affect your child's ability to breathe, contribute to the development of a flat spot on the back of your baby's head and worsen gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) — a chronic digestive disease. In addition, a child can easily be injured by falling out of an improperly used car seat or while sitting in a car seat that falls from a table.

Although it's essential to buckle your child into a car seat during travel, don't let your child sleep or relax in the car seat for long periods of time out of the car.

4. Incorrectly installing the car seat or buckling up your child

Before you install a car seat, read the manufacturer's instructions and the section on car seats in the vehicle's owners manual. Make sure the seat is tightly secured — allowing no more than 1 inch (2.5 centimeters) of movement from side to side or front to back when grasped at the bottom near the attachment points — and facing the correct direction.

If you're using an infant-only seat or a convertible seat in the rear-facing position, keep these tips in mind:

  • Use the harness slots described in the car seat's instruction manual, usually those at or below the child's shoulders. Place the harness straps over your child's shoulders.
  • Buckle the harness straps and chest clip, with the chest clip even with your child's armpits. Make sure the straps and clip lie flat against your child's chest and over his or her hips with no slack. If necessary, place tightly rolled small blankets alongside your baby or rolled washcloths between the crotch strap and your baby to create a secure fit.

5. Reclining your child at the incorrect angle

In the rear-facing position, recline the car seat according to the manufacturer's instructions so that your child's head doesn't flop forward. Babies must ride semireclined to keep their airways open. Many seats include angle indicators or adjusters to guide you. Keep in mind that as your child grows, you might need to adjust the angle. Check the manufacturer's instructions for details.

Aug. 29, 2017 See more In-depth