You might think that anyone who can read an instruction manual and follow directions could install a car seat correctly. In reality, though, it’s not so easy.
And according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 3 out of 4 car seats are improperly installed.
Below are the most important factors when it comes to installing your car seat correctly and where to turn for help if you’re confused. (Illustrations courtesy of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.)
Placement and orientation of the car seat
Car seats for young babies should be installed in the rear-facing position in the center of the rear seat (or the center seat of a van or station wagon with more than one backseat). Keep your child in a rear-facing car seat for as long as possible – until age 2, or when your child reaches the seat’s maximum rear-facing height and weight limits. (Read more about how to choose and use a car seat.)
Once your toddler outgrows the rear-facing capabilities of his car seat, he can ride facing forward. The middle of the backseat is still the safest place for him to sit.
Booster seats – used for children weighing 40 to 100 pounds (ages 4 to 12 and up to 4 feet 9 inches tall) – are intended for use with a shoulder and lap belt, ideally in the backseat. See more information about how to choose and use a booster seats.
Tips for installing your seat successfully
- Read your car seat and vehicle manuals to make sure you understand how to install the seat. If the information isn’t clear, call the automaker, the safety seat manufacturer, or both. Or take a 30-minute workshop to make sure you get it right (see “Getting more help,” below).
- Use the tether system if possible. All child safety seats and vehicles manufactured after 2002 must be compatible with the LATCH system, which stands for Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children (some cars manufactured between 1999 and 2002 also have the system).The LATCH system is designed to make installation of a car seat easier and safer by attaching the car seat directly to anchors permanently attached to the vehicle instead of using the seat belt to secure the seat. Although only front-facing infant and toddler car seats are required to have both the upper and lower attachments, all child safety seats with a five-point safety harness (including rear-facing infant car seats) are required to have the lower anchorsIf you own a vehicle that doesn’t have the anchoring system, consider having your car retrofitted (check with your local auto dealership for information on cost and feasibility).
- If you’re installing a forward-facing seat, make sure it’s flat against the seat’s bottom and back. Be sure to check the safety seat’s instructions for the recommended angle of recline (this goes for rear-facing seats too). Use your hands to push down as hard as you can on the car seat – or better yet, place your knee on the car seat and push down with all your weight to squash the air out of the cushion underneath it.
- If you’re installing a safety seat and not using LATCH, make sure the car’s seat belt is threaded through the correct slots, and pull the belt as tight as possible so there’s no slack. The car seat should move no more than an inch forward and backward or side-to-side on the belt path. Once you’ve buckled the belt, give it a yank to make sure it’s locked.
- If your car is a pre-1996 model, chances are the lap and shoulder belts don’t lock in place unless the car comes to a sudden stop. (To test them, see if you can move the car seat more than an inch to either side or toward the front of the car when the belts are buckled tightly.)If the seat moves, you’ll need to secure it with a locking clip, a small metal device that looks like an oversized paper clip. The locking clip fits around the seat belt (about half an inch above the buckle) to hold the belt firmly in place.If you have an older car and your car seat didn’t come with a locking clip or you’ve misplaced it, contact the manufacturer to order one or purchase one at a children’s supply store.
- Check to make sure the seat is secure and resists side-to-side motion. If you can still tip the car seat forward or sideways more than an inch or so, unbuckle it and try again until you get a tight fit.
Using the installed car seat
- Be sure you know how the harness system works. You can tighten and loosen the straps around your baby with the harness adjustment lever.
- Adjust the harnesses to make them snug. If you can pinch any of the harness material between your fingers, it’s too loose.
- If there’s a plastic harness clip that rests across your baby’s chest, keep it at armpit level to hold shoulder straps in place.
- The straps should always lie flat. Straighten them out if they become twisted.
- After you buckle your child in, tug on the straps to make sure they’re secure.
- Place rolled-up cloth diapers, blankets, or towels around your newborn to keep her snug in the car seat. You can also purchase head, neck, and body supports to secure your baby.
- If your infant’s head flops forward, make the seat more level by wedging a folded towel or other firm support under the front of it. If your car seat has a level indicator, use it to adjust the seat’s recline (usually between 30 and 45 degrees) to keep your baby’s head resting comfortably back.
Getting More Help
Because so many parents have trouble getting their car seats installed properly, manufacturers and child safety experts recommend that new parents sign up for a car seat installation workshop. Such classes usually take about half an hour – a small investment of time for the peace of mind that comes with your baby’s safety.
Where to find one? The NHTSA has inspection stations with certified technicians who can inspect your car seat and teach you how to install it properly. The NHTSA’s website listschild safety seat inspection stations by zip code so you can find help near you.
If you’re looking for help online, see:
- The NHTSA website’s ease-of-use rating information, to help you find a car seat that’s simple to install and use
- The American Academy of Pediatrics’ handy car safety seat checkup
- SafetyBeltSafe U.S.A.’s website, a rich resource of technical details about car seats, the best safety seat for your child, and how to install car seats properly