10 common and dangerous car seat mistakes parents make

You may think that your car seat is correctly installed and that you use it properly, but these small mistakes could put your child’s safety at risk

When you have a list of 47 big-ticket items to buy for your baby, a car seat can seem like yet another expensive hassle. But injuries caused by car accidents are a leading cause of death among children in the U.S., so a good car seat is the single most important piece of safety equipment you’ll purchase for your little one.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), car seats can reduce the risk of death by 71 percent in infants aged less than one year and by 54 percent in children aged 1 to 4 years when they’re installed and used correctly. Yet the 2015 National Child Restraint Use Special Study found that car seats are misused (through incorrect installation or restraint of the child) in a whopping 59 percent of cases.

Here are 10 car seat mistakes and how to avoid them.

  1. Moving them up to the next stage too soon

One of the most common mistakes parents make is turning their child’s seat to face forward too soon because they think that their child has outgrown the rear-facing position or that they’ll be happier if they can see outside. But each stage is less safe than the last because it offers less protection, so the transition should never be rushed.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends keeping your child in the rear-facing position until they’re at least two years of age or they reach the weight and height limits set by the car-seat manufacturer. Although many parents worry when their child’s feet start to touch the back of the seat, the AAP says that they can comfortably and safely sit with their knees bent. See the latest car seat recommendations from the AAP.

Many parents also move their children into booster seats too soon. Just because they’ve reached the booster seat’s lowest recommended height and weight doesn’t mean they’re ready for it. Keep your child in their forward-facing car seat with a five-point harness until they outgrow the manufacturer’s height and weight recommendations. This can happen anytime between the ages of 4 and 6.

  1. Installing it incorrectly

Loose installation is the most common installation mistake parents make. Whether you’re using the LATCH anchors or vehicle seat belt, the seat shouldn’t move more than one inch forward, backward or to each side when you give it a good tug.

Other installation mistakes include using both the lower anchors of the LATCH system and the seatbelts to secure the seat, using the forward-facing belt path for rear-facing orientation and vice versa, and forgetting to put the seatbelts in lock mode (for cars made before 1997). Carefully read both the car-seat manual AND your car manual to avoid any errors.

  1. Placing a rear-facing seat at an incorrect recline angle

Most car seats come with a built-in recline indicator, but you should still read the instruction manual to ensure you’re setting it correctly. A rear-facing seat that’s too far upright can cause a baby’s head to fall forward and obstruct their breathing while a seat that’s too reclined can be less effective at protecting your little one in a crash.

  1. Not using the top tether

According to nonprofit organization Safe Kids Worldwide, 64 percent of forward-facing car seats with harnesses aren’t attached using the top tether. This is a serious concern because the tether significantly reduces the car seat’s forward motion – and the child’s risk of head injury – in the event of an accident. Recent research by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute also indicates that using the tether may help reduce the effects of other car-seat misuses such as loose installation or loose harnessing.

  1. Not having it checked by a professional

Once you’ve installed your car seat, have it checked by a certified technician who can spot critical mistakes that could save your child’s life. Inspection is usually free and you can find a list of checkpoints on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)’s website.

  1. Placing the harness straps and chest clip at the wrong height

To ensure your child’s safety in a crash, the harness straps should be positioned at the correct height. For rear-facing seats, they should be at or slightly below shoulder level. For forward-facing seats, they should be at or slightly above shoulder level. The chest clip, which holds the harness in position during a collision, should be at armpit level rather than on your child’s belly or near their throat.

  1. Leaving the harness straps too loose

Loose straps could cause your child to be thrown from their seat during a crash. They should be tight enough that you’re unable to pinch any harness webbing (material) between your fingers at your child’s shoulders. You should also avoid putting bulky clothing on your child that could prevent you from tightening the straps adequately.

  1. Using a hand-me-down seat

Not only could a secondhand seat have been in an accident that compromised its safety, but car seats expire about six years after their date of manufacture because they degrade over time and technology is constantly advancing. You’re better off buying a new seat to ensure that its safety standards are up to scratch.

  1. Obeying state laws rather than federal guidelines

State laws tend to be laxer than the federal guidelines – and therefore not as safe for your child – so follow the federal recommendations outlined by the NHTSA.

  1. Using padding, covers and cushions from another brand

You should only use covers and cushions that have been crash-tested with your car seat and approved by the manufacturer. Placing any non-approved padding between your child and the seat or the harness straps could compromise their safety in an accident.

For more information on car seats, see our article on How to choose the right car seat.