Most Parents Make Infant Car Seat Mistakes, Says Study

A whopping 93 percent of new parents make at least one infant car seat mistake when buckling up their baby.

baby sleeping in car seat Getty Images

From the moment your baby is born, you know you'll do whatever you can to keep her safe. However, most new moms and dads unintentionally put their baby in danger the second they leave the hospital to take their precious bundle home. Here's why: A whopping 93 percent of parents make at least one serious error when buckling their infant into a car seat, according to a new study recently presented at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics in San Diego. These mistakes, in turn, significantly increase the baby's risk of injury or worse in the case of a crash. (In fact, car accidents are the number one cause of death among children in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)

"Newborns are the most vulnerable people you can put in a car because with their weak necks, low muscle tone, and large heads they are anatomically set up for head and neck injuries," explains Benjamin Hoffman, M.D., lead author of the study, medical director of the Tom Sargent Children's Safety Center at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) Doernbecher Children's Hospital and a professor of pediatrics at the OHSU School of Medicine. "New parents are also vulnerable because they are exhausted, stressed, and possibly still in pain from childbirth and the hospital just sends them home. In a lot of ways, it's this perfect storm that leads to so many car seat errors."

For the study, a certified child passenger safety technician observed 267 brand new mothers (or a designee such as the baby's father or family friend) strapping their infants into the car to go home and installing the car seat if they hadn't done so already. The most common errors: 68% kept the harness too loose, 43% didn't install the car seat tight enough, 36% put the car seat at an incorrect angle, and 33% placed the retainer clip too low.

The good news is that you can take steps to protect your child, says Hoffman. Your best bet is to find an expert in your area who can show you how to install your car seat properly and explain how to strap a baby in safely. Parents who worked with a certified passenger safety technician prior to delivery had a 13-fold decrease in the likelihood of errors, the study reports. You can find an expert at www.safecar.gov or www.seatcheck.org.

Some other tips:

  • Familiarize yourself with the car seat during your third trimester well before the baby arrives. Along with seeking the help of an expert, read the owner's manual thoroughly. Make sure you know how to make adjustments to the seat so that it will fit your newborn.
  • Harness straps should be snug. If you pinch the webbing at your baby's shoulder, there should be no slack between your fingers.
  • The harness retainer clip should be in the center of your child's chest and level at his armpit.
  • The car seat should move less than an inch from front to back or side to side from where it's attached (either the seat belt or the lower anchors.)
  • You can use either the lower anchors or the seat belts to secure the car seat, but most manufacturers don't want you to use both. Check you car seat manual for specifics. If you opt to use a seatbelt, lock it by pulling it all the way out so that when it retracts back in it will stay locked.
  • Every rear facing car seat has an indicator that will let you know if it's installed at the correct recline angle. Make sure that it is—a seat that's too upright can cause the baby's airway to become blocked; a seat that's too reclined won't protect the baby as well in case of an accident.

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