That baby in the photo above? That's my son. And no, I didn't take it for the sake of this blog post. I actually used to buckle him into his car seat with a blanket wrapped around him. I don't know if I was too lazy to take it off, worried that he'd be cold, or just entirely oblivious to all things involving car seat safety, but imagine the horror I felt when I did learn and subsequently looked back at photos and saw all the ways that I'd compromised my own child's safety. Ah!
I don't live in the past. My son is currently two years old, and he's healthy and wonderful, and now that I know better, I simply do better! I opened with that little story because I want you to know that when I talk about car seat safety on my blog or point out things you could do better when I see you in person (my friends know I'm notorious for this), I'm not doing it in a know it all, I'm-a-better-mom-than-you kind of way. I'm doing it in an I-once-was-blind-but-now-I-see kind of way, wishing that someone had lovingly pointed out to me that I was doing so much wrong when I "secured" my first son into his car seat and that it wasn't just a matter of opinion, but a matter of me putting my child's life on the line every time I buckled him in with a blanket wrapped around him, with his harness straps incredibly loose, with his chest clip at his belly button, etc. etc. etc. Because if we're gonna use car seats, let's use them right! Can I get an AMEN?! Okay. That's my sermon for the day.
Things to check EVERY SINGLE TIME you buckle a child into a car seat!
1. Make sure the harness straps aren't twisted. Seriously, not only is it strictly prohibited in pretty much every car seat manual I've ever read, it's also 100x harder/more frustrating to buckle a kid into a car seat with twisted straps. So do your stress levels a favor: take the time to untwist them, and make it a point to keep them that way.
2. If your harness is tightened properly, you shouldn't be able to pinch loose fabric. If you can, the harness isn't tight enough. To check, try to pinch the fabric near the child's collarbone before you've adjusted the chest clip. I've heard it put this way: if you were jumping out of a plane with a parachute, you'd want to make sure the parachute was secured to you tightly. Imagine what you'd risk by putting it on loosely! It might slip off you. You might be jostled a ton when it deployed. The same applies to your child and how well you're harnessing him into his car seat. If you're involved in a crash, the harness straps are what keep your child in place in his seat. You don't want him being thrown around within the straps any more than necessary or God-forbid slipping out of them entirely. So make sure they're tight enough! Additionally, never buckle a child into a car seat while he/she is wearing bulky or puffy clothing/coats/snowsuits. You essentially harness the bulky clothing, and not your child. In a crash, all that clothing compressed and the straps are revealed to not actually be snug to the child's body.
3. The top of the chest clip should be level with your child's armpits. The chest clip simply helps to keep the harness straps where they belong on a baby's body so that the child will remain in the seat during a crash. Although you should always use the chest clip properly, I'd venture to say that making sure the harness straps are tight enough in the first place is the more important of the two because the harness straps are what keep your baby in the car seat, not the flimsy plastic chest clip. For tiny babies, the chest clip might look like it's practically up to their chin because their armpits are up so high and their torsos are so tiny, and that's okay. They'll grow into it! Sometimes you can remove or adjust the harness strap covers in order to properly place the chest clip. Most of the time it's fine to remove them, but you should check with the maker of your car seat to confirm that it's allowed.
Additional things to check to make sure a child's car seat is safe!
1. Under two? The child should be rear-facing (in a car seat that accommodates rear-facing at their height/weight). There's no way around the fact that a one-year-old's spine simply isn't developed enough to safely endure the forces of even a minor crash in a forward-facing car seat. The way a child's body bears the impact of a crash in a rear-facing car seat is ENTIRELY different from the way it bears the impact forward-facing. Want to learn more? Click here! The video below is super short but you'll see just how much more force the forward-facing child's head bears in a crash... which will also make the statistic that rear-facing children are 500% safer than forward-facing children make total sense!
2. The harness straps need to be at or below the shoulders for rear-facing, and at or above the shoulders for forward-facing. See below for an example! The way this is adjusted varies from seat to seat, so check your instruction manual. Sometimes you can simply push a button to raise or lower the slot the harness straps start at, and sometimes you have to manually unattached and rethread them.
3. The car seat needs to be installed tightly enough. An easy way to test this is to grab the car seat on one side down near where the seatbelt or LATCH connectors are securing it to the vehicle. Try to wiggle it towards you and away from you. If it moves more than 1 inch, it's NOT installed tightly enough!!! The specific way each car seat is installed and the weight limits for LATCH will vary from seat to seat, so you must must must read and understand the instruction manual for the car seat your child is using or you could be putting their life on the line with an improper installation. For newborns, achieving the proper angle of the car seat is very important or they could have their breathing compromised. The video below shows what happens when a car seat is not installed tightly.
4. Are you using the right accessories? Firstly, never use any car seat accessory that didn't come with your car seat or that the manufacturer of your car seat hasn't given explicit permission to use. You could seriously mess up how the car seat is meant to function and car seat manufacturers warn against it. Sorry (but not really) BundleMes and cute animal harness strap covers! Secondly, make sure you know the guidelines for how to use even the accessories that come with a seat. For instance, my newborn uses a Chicco KeyFit 30, which comes with an infant insert. The instruction manual for the KeyFit 30 says to stop using the insert when a child is 11 lbs, and he met that weight before he was a month old, so I stopped using it!