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Chances are your little one, like some 90 percent of young children, has been—or will be—riding unsafely in your vehicle at some point. That’s because cars and child-safety seats are an awkward fit at best. And getting them to work together takes a lot more ingenuity than you might think. Just ask the experts. I did, over and over again, when I was training to become a certified child-passenger-safety (CPS) technician. Here’s what several of the nation’s top instructors consider key to installing a car seat.
Buy the right seat for your car> “Some car seats, no matter how highly rated, just aren’t compatible with some cars,” says Julie Prom, a CPS instructor and consultant in Fredericksburg, Va. For example, the rear center position (the preferred spot for a car seat) of certain vehicles is too narrow for car seats with a wide base. The solution? Visit www.carseatdata.org, a technician-run site that keeps a list of car and car-seat compatibilities. Then try before you buy—and only shop where it’s easy to make a return.
Read the manuals> “It sounds obvious, but parents often turn to the car-seat manual as a last resort, when it should be the very first thing they do,” says Glenn Boonstra, a CPS instructor who works for the Borough Jeep/Chrysler dealership in Wayne, N.J. And don’t just skim—read it line-by-line; the instructions could include some not-so-obvious information about your specific car seat that can directly affect your child’s safety. Pay equal attention to the car-seat section of your vehicle manual, Boonstra says.
Get the right angle> All car seats are designed so when their base is horizontal to the ground, the seat will hold a child at the angle the manufacturer deems safest. In the rear-facing position, this angle is usually between 30 and 45 degrees. The problem is, most vehicle seats slant down toward the back.
Several car seats now come with an adjustable base that can be raised to help compensate for this slant. But many parents still end up sticking something under the car-seat base when it’s in the rear-facing position in order to make it level. Some car-seat manuals recommend using a rolled-up towel, but CPS technicians say that in some cases pool noodles—long, spongy water toys—work better.
When your child is big enough to be seated in a forward-facing position (1 year and 20 pounds at the absolute minimum, preferably longer), check your car-seat manual again for proper installation. Note: To be safe, do not prop up the car seat with pool noodles or other objects when it is facing forward. And remember, the front passenger seat is the least safe spot to place your baby.