10 Car Seat Safety Mistakes That Might Surprise You!

Car Seat safety is really important ... but so confusing! In fact, an estimated 70% of children are riding in carseats incorrectly installed or not fit appropriately for them.

I took a great car seat safety class at the hospital before my baby was born.  But lately I’ve been learning a lot more about car seat safety, which is a bit disconcerting since my kiddo is almost one! I was surprised to learn that we were making a few big car seat mistakes along the way, so I thought I’d share some of those and other surprising, but common, car seat mistakes. 

1. Turning Your Child Forward-Facing Too Soon

Historically, people have turned their babies forward-facing somewhere around the first birthday. BUT current car seat research and testing shows that rear-facing is the safest position for babies and children’s musculoskeletal systems in the event of a crash. The general consensus currently is that children should be kept rear-facing until they outgrow their rear-facing seat, which given the current high weight limits on many seats, could be 4 or 5 years old! Sound crazy? Read on...

The lead author of the The American Academy of Pediatrics car seat recommendations and technical report, Dennis Durban, MD, FAAP,  states:

“Parents often look forward to transitioning from one stage to the next, but these transitions should generally be delayed until they’re necessary, when the child fully outgrows the limits for his or her current stage. A rear-facing child safety seat does a better job of supporting the head, neck and spine of infants and toddlers in a crash, because it distributes the force of the collision over the entire body. For larger children, a forward-facing seat with a harness is safer than a booster, and a belt-positioning booster seat provides better protection than a seat belt alone until the seat belt fits correctly.”     Read more about the AAP's recommendation here.

Why Rear Facing: The Science Junkies Guide from Car Seats for the Littles
Why Ride Rear Facing from The Car Seat Lady
Why Rear Facing Is Safest from Car Safety.Org

2. Worrying About Broken Legs In Rear-Facing

Research shows that rear-facing children - even those with legs stretched up the back seat - are less likely to experience leg injuries including fractures than forward-facing children. So what does extended rear-facing look like?

Extended Rear Facing is Safest. Car Seat Safety Mistakes That Might Surprise You. CanDo Kiddo

Yes, that's 100% safe and safer than having this kiddo forward-facing! And she doesn't look unhappy about it!

Mythbusting: Legs Bent or Feet Touching The Back Seat Is Dangerous from The Car Seat Blog
Rear Facing Car Seat Myths Busted from Car Seats for the Littles

3. Using Accessories That Didn’t Come With Your Car Seat

Nearly every car seat manufacturer has a statement warning against the use of “aftermarket products” - seat covers, infant supports and cushions, neck pillows, strap covers and anything else you could add to your seat that didn’t come in the box.

Why infant head supports - strap covers and more aren't safe. CanDo Kiddo

Why? Because these items were not included in car seat safety tests and may impact the physics of how a seat functions in a crash. In many cases, aftermarket products void the warranty on your car seat.  I was also told by the certified Child Passenger Safety Technician in my class (but have not been able to verify) that insurance companies may also deny injury claims if aftermarket products were found to be used in a car seat involved in a crash.

The rule is - if it didn't come with your seat OR if it isn't sold or provided by your manufacturer specifically as safe for your seat - don't use it. 

Non Regulated Products from Car Seats for The Littles
Dangers of Fluff In the Car Seat from The Car Seat Lady

4. Car Seat Touching The Back Of The Front Seat

We have a small car so things get pretty tight pretty quickly with a car seat in the mix. I made the incorrect assumption that if the top of the car seat touched the back of the front seat, it would make the whole set-up more stable. Makes sense, right? Except that in the event of a crash, your baby’s seat could absorb the impact of the front seat (and it’s passenger if occupied) in addition to the other impacts of the crash.

Different seats recommend different spacing - either being able to slide a piece of paper between the seats, being able to slide a hand between, or allowing the two seats to touch - check your owner’s manual AND check the owners manual of your car. A car seat touching the back of the front seat can interfere with some smart air bag systems. 

Frequently Asked Questions from CarSafety.org

Car Seat Touching front seat may not be safe. Learn More CanDo Kiddo

5. Infant Seat Handle In An Unsafe Position In the Car

To make matters utterly confusing, safe infant car seat handle position for travel varies by brand. Consult your car seat’s owner’s manual for specific recommendations for your seat. Lost the manual? Look for a downloadable copy on the manufacturer’s website or call the manufacturer directly. This source includes a nice chart of acceptable handle positions for some of the most popular infant seats:

Handle Position In The Car from The Car Seat Lady

6. Checking For Wiggle At The Top Of The Seat

I learned from my hospital’s car seat safety class (and later verified with multiple sources) that you only need to check your car seat’s movement at the belt path - not at the top of the seat. PHEW! Look for less than 1” of wiggle room front to back and side to side at the belt path of the seat as one part (of many) of a safe installation. 

Car Seat Basics from Car Seats for The Littles

7. Placing Your Infant Car Seat On the Grocery Cart

This is one I see nearly every time I visit a busy store. Infant seats are safe when placed in the bottom of the main compartment of a shopping cart but NOT when perched on the baby seat portion of the car. This position puts baby’s at risk for falling - think those deep grooves in your seat keep that seat stable? Watch this...

Shopping Carts and Car Seats from The Car Seat Lady


8. Bundling Your Little One In Winter

Car seats and coats don’t mix. The extra loft of a fluffy coat or bunting is compressed in a crash and can leave the harness too loose to secure your little one safely. Use blankets or put your baby’s coat on backwards over the straps to keep her warm. 

Coats & Car Seats Are Not A Safe Combo from The Car Seat Lady

9. Straps Too Loose

The last thing you want to do is squish your little one or make them uncomfortable. But those straps do need to be tighter than you probably think. There’s also something more intuitive about sliding your hand between the straps and your baby’s chest to check for tightness - but that’s not an accurate or safe assessment of fit. 

Straps too loose and 9 other common car seat mistakes. CanDo Kiddo

The rule of thumb is that you shouldn’t be able to pinch the strap at the shoulders (in the photo above, the straps are too loose). When you’re first getting used to your seat, you’ll want to do the pinch test regularly, which might mean sliding your seat’s strap covers and chest clip down a bit to get access to the strap and then back up before you drive off. 

Car Seat Basics from Car Seats for Littles

(don't worry - my guy isn't crying in this photo because he was getting pinched - he was just tired of sitting in a hot car not going anywhere!)

10. Taking Car Seat Advice From An Unqualified Source

This one is oh-so-easy to do and I’m guilty of it! It seems everyone who’s ever had a kid is happy to offer their input, advice, or experiences with car seats. Ultimately, with something as important as your child’s safety it’s essential that you get accurate information from a qualified source - your car seat manufacturer or a certified Child Passenger Safety Technician. Have a CPST show you how to install your specific seat(s) instead of doing it for you. And my experience with two car seat manufacturers is that they’re happy to answer your questions, so give a call or send an email. 

…AND because I’m not a certified CPST, don’t take my word for it! I’ve linked to qualified sources written by certified CPST's in every instance in this post so that you can verify that this information is accurate. 

And While We're On The Topic of Car Seats...

They may be convenient, but learn how too much time in an infant car seat outside of car travel can affect development.

Are Car Seat Travel Systems Bad for Baby? a guest post from Pink Oatmeal for Mama OT

Are Car Seat Travel Systems Bad for Baby? Pink Oatmeal guest post for Mama OT

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