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A mom’s guide to car seat safety

Elaina is a Phoenix-based freelance writer, blogger and co-founder of the Kidlee baby book app. Check out her blog, Fun Finds For Mom, for product reviews, recipes and fun activities for moms and kids.

Car seat safety cheat sheet

According to AAA, 75 percent of children are using a car seat that has not been properly installed or is not being used correctly. Make sure your child is properly restrained and protect your precious cargo.

Match the seat to the child

First things first. It's imperative to make sure your child is using the car seat or safety restraint recommended by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Use the safercar.gov car seat safety guide to determine if your child should be in a rear-facing car seat, forward-facing car seat, booster seat or seat belt. Yes, there are significant overlaps (for example, a 4-7 year old can be in either a forward-facing car seat or booster seat, according to this chart), so when shopping for car seats or boosters, refer to the manufacturer's recommended height and weight restrictions.

Know the law

Did you know that many states require children to ride in a rear-facing child restraint until they are over 20 pounds? Or that children under age 8 and less than 57 inches must use a booster seat in Arizona? As your children grow, it's important to stay on top of the changing legal requirements regarding car seats, boosters and seat belts. Check the child seat laws in your state on the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety website.

Check for recalls, expiration date and accident history

Now that you know the type of car seat your child needs, how can you make sure it's roadworthy? This is particularly important if you're passing down a car seat from an older sibling or relative. NHTSA's safercar.gov website offers a child seat recall campaign listing with all recalls up to 10 years old. If you're using a car seat that is more than 10 years old, check with the manufacturer for the seat's expiration date, which indicates the "useful life" of the car seat. And remember — never use a car seat if you don't know its history. A car seat that has been involved in a motor vehicle accident should never be used subsequently.

Install car seat properly

Before installing your car seat, you'll need to do a little reading. Consult your car's owner's manual for car seat installation information as well as your car seat instruction manual. In addition, follow these car seat installation tips from safercar.gov:

  • Secure the car seat tightly in the vehicle. It should not move side-to-side or front-to-back more than 1 inch when pulled at the belt path.
  • A forward-facing seat with a top tether strap should be connected to the tether anchor and tightened. This important step limits forward head movement in the event of a crash.
  • If you have a rear-facing seat, make sure the car seat is installed at the correct recline angle. Most car seats have built-in angle indicators or adjusters that help with this step.

Ensure the correct fit

Even the most expertly installed car seat won't do its job unless the seat fits the child. Safercar.gov recommends the following tips to ensure the correct fit:

  • Properly position the harness on your child.
    • Rear-facing – Harness straps should lie flat (not twisted) and be placed through the slot that is at or below your child's shoulders.
    • Forward-facing – Harness straps should lie flat (not twisted) and be placed through the slot that is at or above your child's shoulders.
  • Buckle the harness and the chest clip and tighten. Make sure the chest clip is at armpit level.
    • You'll know the harness is snug enough when extra material cannot be pinched at the shoulder.
    • Always buckle the baby in the seat first, and then place coats or blankets over the harness. (Bulky clothing or blankets can prevent a snug harness fit.)
    • If your baby needs head or shoulder support, fill the empty spaces with small, rolled blankets on each side.
    • If there is a gap between the buckle and your child's groin, try placing a rolled washcloth or diaper in the space for a more secure fit.
    • If your child is in a high-back or backless booster seat, adjust the lap belt so it lies snugly across the child's upper thighs (not across the stomach) and check the fit of the seat belt often.

If you still have questions about your car seat installation, check safercar.gov or pay a visit to a Child Car Seat Inspection Station near you. Typically located in local police and fire stations, trained Child Passenger Safety Technicians provide free seat checks to ensure proper installation.

More car safety tips:

Types of car seats
Car seat could save lives of children left in cars
Used baby gear safety guidelines

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