We've come a long way since the vintage car seats that our parents and grandparents probably sat in as babies. But, even with the advanced designs and safety features of modern car seats, there are several reasons that your brand new car seat might be unsafe for your baby, toddler, or big kid.
Below we review seven of the most common car seat mistakes that can compromise your baby's safety. The most important rule of thumb is to follow the manufacturer's instructions.
That means reading the car seat's owner's manual and your vehicle's owner's manual, and if you have any difficulties or questions, seeking out a Child Passenger Safety Technician (CPST) in your area. In fact, let's make that the most important suggestion of all: seek advice if you are uncertain or want an expert second opinion.
1. Transitioning to front-facing too soon.
Parents have a tendency to switch their toddler from a rear-facing to a front-facing configuration too soon. This has become much easier with the invention of convertible car seats (see the best and safest ones here), which makes it much easier to "promote" your baby to front-facing whenever you think they're ready. But, rear-facing is much safer than front-facing, and you are putting your child at risk by transitioning to front-facing too early.
As a rule of thumb: Always keep your baby rear-facing until you reach the manufacturer's height or weight limit for rear-facing. This tends to be around 35 to 40 pounds, though some newer convertible car seats allow front-facing up to 50 pounds! Those include the top-rated Graco Extend2Fit and Nuna Rava. Car seats that support rear-facing for longer make it possible to fulfill the recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which states that all babies should ride rear-facing until they grow out of the car seat manufacturer's car height or weight limits (see the updated AAP policy as of August 2018 here).
2. Transitioning to a booster too soon.
Notice a pattern here? Transitioning between car seats and car seat installation options are very important to your child's safety. Parents have a tendency to switch from a front-facing car seat with a 5-point harness to a front-facing booster car seat too soon. The 5-point harness of a front-facing convertible car seat or combination car seat is much safer than using a booster with the vehicle's seat belt. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) states that your child should remain in a car seat with a 5-point harness until they outgrow the manufacturer's height or weight limits.
There are some newer combination car seats, such as the Britax Frontier (our highest-rated booster car seat) that allow you to use the 5-point safety harness with children up to 90 pounds, making them an excellent option for prolonging the transition to a belt-positioning booster seat.
3. Improper car seat installation.
According to our Facebook polls, about 35% of moms think they can properly install a car seat, whereas about 85% of dads think they can do it properly. The truth of the matter is, only about 40% of all car seats are properly installed, suggesting that the vast majority of parents are likely doing something wrong.
The most common installation mistakes include improper recline, improper belt-routing or LATCH fastening to the vehicle, incorrect shoulder harness height and/or tightness, twisted harness straps, and failure to use the top tether. In fact, about 65% of parents forget to attach the top tether! As we mentioned above, always read the car seat's owner's manual, and your vehicle's owner's manual to make sure you are installing and adjusting the car seat properly. A failure to properly install or adjust the car seat can result in serious injury or even death. If you ever have questions about properly installing your car seat, seek the advice of an expert!
4. Using the LATCH for longer than recommended.
The LATCH system is designed for use with a maximum combined weight (car seat + child) of 65 pounds (rear-facing) or 69 pounds (front-facing). Many parents use the LATCH system beyond this point and put their child in serious danger. Since you probably don't know the exact weight of your car seat, check its owner's manual for exact instructions. For example, the top-rated Graco 4Ever suggests using the LATCH system until your baby is up to 42 pounds. That's because the seat itself is about 23 pounds (42 + 23 = 65).
If your baby is over the weight limit for your car seat's LATCH system, you're putting your baby at risk in the event of an accident because the LATCH system may not be strong enough to secure the car seat into the vehicle.
5. Not removing bulky clothing.
In the winter months, parents tend to put their babies into big thick coats and pants to keep warm. This isn't surprising, and it certaintly is comfy and cozy for the baby. But the problem is, if your baby is in her car seat with all that thick clothing on, they are at risk of not being properly secured into the car seat.
In the event of an accident, all of that thick clothing on their body will instantly compress and render their 5-point harness too loose for their body size. In the worst-case scenario, the baby's shoulders could slip out of the harness and they can get ejected from the seat. A good rule of thumb is to not have your baby wear anything thicker than a fleece jacket when they are in the car seat. Anything bulkier than that should be removed before they are buckled in. If they are chilly, then consider using a soft blanket.
6. Incorrect harness clip height.
Many parents do not pay enough attention to the height of the chest retainer clip on their car seat. If the clip is too low, your child's shoulders can easily slip out of the shoulder harness in the event of a crash. If the clip is too high, you risk serious injury to your child's throat or neck.
As a rule of thumb, the clip height should be positioned at the same height as your baby's armpits. Since you probably will move it a bit each time you unbuckle and rebuckle the seat, be sure to double-check its height each time you put your baby in the car seat.
7. Using a used, expired, or recalled car seat.
Many parents are tempted by the ease and convenience of getting a hand-me-down car seat from a friend, relative, or stranger. Some even look to purchasing used car seats on places like Craigslist. Never purchase a used car seat! Only accept a car seat from a friend of family member when you know its exact history. Better yet, buy a new one. There are plenty of excellent and inexpensive infant car seats and inexpensive convertible car seats to choose from.
Also, be sure to check the expiration date, which will be printed on the car seat, typically on the side or back. Most car seats expire after 6 years, though some are good for up to 10 years. For information about all different types of infant, convertible, and booster seats, including owner's manuals, check out our full guide of car seat expiration dates. This is very important to check, because the plastic and other parts used on car seats can deteriorate over time and render the car seat unsafe.
Finally, be sure to check whether your car seat has any safety recalls by using the NHTSA's online tool.