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.

Car seat safety is crucial for protecting your child during travel, but knowing how to safely install a car seat and 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.

No. 1: Getting a used car seat without researching its history

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 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.

No. 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 with 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 possible — rather than next to a door to minimize the risk of injury during a crash.

No. 3: Using the car seat as a replacement crib

A car seat is designed to protect your child during travel. It's not for use as a replacement crib in your home. A 2009 study showed that sitting upright in a car seat might compress a newborn's chest and lead to lower levels of oxygen. Even mild airway obstruction can impair a child's development. Sitting in a car seat for lengthy periods can also 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 an elevated surface, such as a table or counter. 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.

No. 4: Incorrectly buckling up your child

It can be challenging at first to properly buckle a child in a car seat. Before you install the 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 one inch 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 or chest clip even with your child's armpits — not the abdomen or neck. Make sure the straps and harness lie flat against your child's chest and over his or her hips with no slack.

Position the car seat's carrying handle according to the manufacturer's instructions.

No. 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. Many seats include angle indicators or adjusters. You can also place a tightly rolled towel under the seat's front edge to achieve the right angle.

To prevent slouching, place tightly rolled baby blankets alongside your newborn. If necessary, place a rolled washcloth between the crotch strap and your baby to prevent slouching. Don't use any additional products unless they came with the car seat or from the manufacturer.

Sep. 08, 2011 See more In-depth