By Mary Beth Gibson
Fall has officially arrived. There’s a crisp bite in the air, and the holidays are right around the corner. It’s time to break out the cold weather gear, and many of us are on the hunt for new coats for little ones who won’t stop growing. Don’t buy that puffy, expensive coat yet, though; it’s time for a refresher course in car seat safety. Knowing what to do in the winter months can be the difference between a couple scratches and serious injury.
Here are the essentials when it comes to car seat safety.
Which Car Seat to Use
There are four basic types of car seats.
*Infant seats are rear facing only, click in and out of a base secured in a vehicle, and are carried with a handle.
*Convertible car seats can be installed both rear facing and forward facing and have specific requirements for use each way.
*Forward facing car seats can only be used forward facing, have a five-point harness, and use top tether to secure it in your vehicle.
*Booster seats use the car’s lap/shoulder belts to secure the child. Some convertible car seats also become booster seats.
Every car seat comes with a minimum and a maximum weight requirement. Generally speaking, the majority of newborns can safely ride in a convertible car seat; however, many parents choose infant car seats for their ease of use. When you have a small infant in the winter months being able to buckle your newborn indoors rather than with the wind whipping into the car when it’s below freezing is a large consideration.
As a general rule, you want to max out your child in every position before moving them into the next stage of car seat. Rear face your child in an infant or convertible seat until he hits the maximum height and/or weight limits for that position. Forward face your child in a five-point harness until he hits the maximum weight and height limits. Many forward facing car seats have weight limits of 55, 60, or even 65+ pounds, meaning that almost every child should be in a five-point harness until they enter grade school. Only after a child outgrows the five-point harness should he be put in a booster seat. Booster seat use can vary greatly based on the type of car you drive and your child’s age, so use this five-step test to determine whether your child is able to ride with a seat belt alone:
- Does your child sit all the way back against the car’s seat?
- Do his knees bend comfortably at the edge of the seat?
- Does the lap belt naturally rest below his belly, touching the top of his thighs?
- Is the shoulder belt centered across his shoulder and chest?
- Can he stay seated like this for the entire trip?
If the answer to any of these questions is no, your child is not ready to leave a booster seat.
Rear Facing vs. Forward Facing
Several states (California, Connecticut, Illinois, Nebraska, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and South Carolina) require seats to rear face up to age two, but most states only require car seats to rear face up to age one. Please be aware that your state’s law is not necessarily the best guideline. A child secured in a rear facing car seat is safest. Car seat safety experts recommend keeping your child rear facing as long as he is within the height and weight limits on the car seat when it is in the rear facing position. This includes virtually every child age two and under.
Here’s an important consideration. Even if your 18-month old or 12-month old is big enough to be placed in a forward facing car seat, their anatomy is still much more fragile than a child at 24+ months old. Bones strengthen and grow rapidly during the toddler years, and children of the same size are not created equal. An 18-month old boy who is 36 inches tall and weighs 30 pounds is not the same as a two-and-a-half-year-old who is the same height and weight. The older child’s bone strength and skeletal structure is significantly different than the younger’s and is better able to withstand an impact while forward facing. If you have an especially large or petite child, take their age into account when deciding whether to rear or forward face. Your dainty, little three-year-old who still hasn’t maxed out her rear facing car seat is almost certainly developed enough to forward face despite her small size.
Always, always, always read your car seat’s manual before installing the seat in your vehicle, and read your car manual’s section on car seats if you haven’t done so already. Every car seat is different and every vehicle is different. Most car seats come with two methods to secure them in a vehicle—a seat belt method and a LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) method. Most cars made in the last 10 years can accommodate the LATCH system, but it’s important to verify that with your car manual. And while one might think that securing the car seat with both the LATCH system and the seatbelt would keep it extra secure, this is not the case. Choose one method and ensure you have followed all the directions in both the vehicle manual and the car seat manual.
Once you have installed your car seat, you must make sure it is positioned in your vehicle correctly. When you have chosen the location for the car seat and installed it, there should be no more than 1 inch of wiggle room when you push the seat from side to side and front to back. Many car seats require that you keep the base level to the ground, so make sure you check that. A car seat should not touch any other seats once installed, so if it is behind the driver’s seat or passenger seat, the largest driver/passenger in the household should sit in the seat to test how far back it will be while driving. If the seats touch then the front seats need to be moved forward until they no longer touch.
Securing Your Child in the Seat
When you buckle your child in the car seat, always check to ensure the straps are not twisted or tangled. When a child is rear facing, the shoulder straps should be at or below shoulder level, and when a child is forward facing the straps should be at or above shoulder level. Every five-point harness comes with an upper clip and a buckle between the child’s legs. The upper clip is called the “chest” clip, and this is exactly where it should be placed. If the chest clip is buckled across the abdomen this could cause significant injury to internal organs in the event of a collision. Straps should also be tight enough to pass the pinch test: using your thumb and index finger, firmly pinch the strap at the shoulder level with your fingers about an inch apart. If it pinches together it is too loose. Always double check your child’s straps before driving, especially if they are buckling themselves in the seat.
Keeping Your Child Warm
In these upcoming cold months, securing car seat straps tightly enough can become challenging when navigating around excess fabric from hoods and large coats. Large, winter coats can make it seem like your child is securely buckled into his car seat, but an impact causes that fabric to compress significantly, leaving your child in danger of slipping out of his harness and being injured. Test your child’s coat by putting your child in the coat and buckling him in his car seat. Unbuckle your child without changing the straps, remove the coat, and buckle your child back in the seat. If the straps pass the pinch test then the coat is fine to wear in the car seat.
For babies in an infant carrier, dress them as if they were going to be indoors, tuck a blanket around them, and put a hat on their head. Did you know the Zipadee-Zip is an excellent and car seat safe alternative to a winter coat for your infant? On long road trips to visit family over the holidays the Zipadee-Zip not only keeps them warm, but also provides comfort and familiarity. This is a huge plus when your little one has to have his nap on the go. If you add a car seat cover to block the wind be sure it does not touch the harness or interfere with the movement of the straps in any way.
For toddlers and preschoolers, remove their coat before getting in the car seat and then put their arms through the coat backwards; blankets are also an excellent option. Anything that allows the child to remove layers if they’re feeling too warm is a good choice.
With so many things to keep in mind every time you get in the car, it’s good to have a reminder from time to time. Drive safely out there this winter, and keep your little ones warm without compromising their safety!
National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration
Mary Beth Gibson graduated from Wichita State University in 2007 with a BA in Creative Writing and blogs at Bright Sycamore. She enjoys most things natural, but with a healthy dose of practicality and affordability. You can most likely find her at Target chasing her toddler with a baby strapped to her chest. She lives in Kansas with her husband and her two children, ages 3 and 10 months.