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Winter car seat mistakes that put babies at risk

Diane Ashoff has a background in mathematics and a keen eye for baby name trends. She lives with her husband and three children in Florida.

The biggest cold weather car seat mistake most moms make

Most parents have their car seat game on point, until cold weather hits. During the frosty winter months, we focus all our attention on keeping our babies warm and happy — a practice that might not always keep them safe.

The last thing your morning rush needs is one more step, but buckling infants and children into their car seats with coats on leaves them more vulnerable to injury in a crash. A quick search on Flickr for children bundled up in car seats showed us that most parents aren't aware of this potential danger. Jennifer Hoekstra, who works at Helen DeVos Children's Hospital in Michigan as a safe kids coordinator, was happy to explain the reason behind this inconvenient cold weather rule. She summed it up in two words: loose straps.

"Although a child may seem secure all bundled up in the car seat, these thick layers make it very hard to get the harness tight enough to protect the child in a crash." In an impact, any space between your child's body and the harness straps allows for movement. This adds up to a greater risk for neck and spine injuries and possible ejection from the car seat. This means no heavy coats, no snow suits and absolutely no fluffy, puffy baby swaddling devices.

More: The scary little danger that could be hiding in your baby's clothes

Think your child's coat is safe? Hoekstra suggests this experiment:

  1. Strap your child into her seat wearing her coat. Tighten the straps as much as possible.
  2. Undo the harness clips and have your child remove her coat.
  3. Strap her back in without tightening the straps. See how much slack remains? Yikes.

The biggest cold weather car seat mistake most moms make

"Strap 'em before you wrap 'em"

Hoekstra recommends dressing children for 50 degree F weather — in thin, tight layers — under their coats. If possible, run out to the car and let it warm up for a few minutes before you need to leave. Keep coats on, but unfastened, for the dash to the car, but remove them before getting buckled in. Once the harness is safely tightened, go ahead and put coats back on — backwards. That's right, you just invented the Snuggie.

More: Bizarre baby 'chair' could be the answer to every new mom's prayers

A few more tips

  • Leave on hats and keep blankets in the car for each child.
  • Most thin hoodies will be fine — see experiment above if you aren't sure — but check the hood isn't bunched behind your child's back. Not only will the straps be too loose, he will be complaining the entire trip.
  • Buntings that attach to the outside of bucket seats are a go, as long as the child is buckled in before you put them on.
  • Keep in mind, overheating can be a problem. As the car warms up, your children may need to take off the jackets, blankets and hats. Be sure to check on little ones periodically, and remove buntings from infant carriers — especially on longer car rides.
  • Always follow safe car seat practices, no matter the weather, and have your seat inspected. Visit safekids.org to find a certified child passenger safety technician in your area.

More: Parents find out the hard way that babies eat everything — even rings

The biggest cold weather car seat mistake most moms make
Image: Becci Burkhart/SheKnows

Updated by Bethany Ramos on 2/3/2016

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