Buying a car seat is easy,installing one a challenge. Here’s how to do it correctly.
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.
Know thy seat belts> When you use a vehicle's seat belt to secure a car seat, that seat belt must be prevented from letting out slack. Otherwise, your car seat will end up sliding around the seat of your car no matter what you do. Not all vehicle belt systems operate the same way, so read your vehicle manual. If the car's seat-belt system requires the use of a separate locking clip, consider buying a car seat that comes with this feature built in (only Britax currently offers this). It's a more expensive route, but it's easier than using the separate metal locking clip that comes with other car seats.
Make it tight> Now it's time to get the seat in tight—which means the car seat should move no more than 1 inch in any direction. First, follow all of the instructions to a "T." When you're sure the car seat is placed correctly, lean hard into the empty seat as you tighten the seat belt. I actually get on top of it and push my back into the top of the car for extra leverage. Be sure to get rid of any slack. Use that tether> Top tethers now come with every new car seat that can be used in the forward-facing position. It's well worth using the tether when it's time to turn your child around because it adds overall stability to the seat. "By anchoring the top of a forward-facing car seat to a vehicle's tether anchor, a top tether dramatically reduces how far a child's head can be thrust forward during a collision," explains Sandy Waak, R.N., a member of the Regional Child Passenger Safety Team, a consortium of city departments and child-safety advocacy groups in Washington, D.C. Your vehicle manual will tell you whether your car comes equipped with a tether anchor and, if so, where it is located. If you have an older model, your car dealership should be able to tell you if and where an anchor can be installed. DaimlerChrysler and most Ford and General Motors dealerships retrofit older vehicles free of charge.
Schedule a checkup> Once you've done your best to install your car seat, pay a visit to a certified CPS technician for a once-over. A technician will determine if and how the seat fits your vehicle and your child, check to make sure that the product has not been recalled, and—most important—show you how to correctly install it by yourself. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Web site (www.nhtsa.dot.gov) maintains a ZIP-code directory of institutions and individuals qualified to provide free child-passenger safety checkups. You can also contact the
following organizations directly: DaimlerChrysler Fit for a Kid, 877-FIT-4-AKID, www.fitforakid.org; National Safe Kids Campaign, 800-441-1888, www.safekids.org; International Association of Chiefs of Police, 1-800-THE-IACP; or Boost America, 866-BOOST-KID, www.boostamerica.org.
Put outerwear on top> Dress your child with as little bulk as possible and be sure to drape blankets and anything else over the harness strap. During a collision, everything between a car seat's harness straps and the back of the car seat compresses, including the coat and clothing your child is wearing. A harness that seemed tight can become loose, making it possible for your child to be ejected from the seat.