Common Car Seat Mistakes

I actually pride myself on being very safety conscious (code: paranoid and anal retentive) but I made quite a few of these mistakes when my son’s were little. Car seats are so damn confusing that it really is hard not to make a misstep. So I asked Claire to sift through the longwinded rules and regulations to distill it down to the ‘what and why’. She’s also included links to some amazing car seat resources out there so be sure to check them out to read the nitty gritty!

– Amy

I bet one of the first things you dropped a boatload of money on when you were pregnant was a car seat. Even if you live in Manhattan and you don’t own a car, the hospital will not discharge your baby until they see him/her strapped into a bucket, ready to go home safely.

So now you’ve got this fancy car seat…but it’s a wee bit more complicated to use correctly than just strapping in your babe and rolling out with “Life Is a Highway” blasting on the speakers.

Enter your Dad and Grandma shrugging and rolling their eyes at you. “We didn’t even have car seats for kids when I was growing up” they’ll say. They’re not lying, but I’m not sure things were exactly better back then. Shit, one time in the 80s one of my friend’s dad’s took a sharp turn, the back door of the car flew open and my friend straight-up fell out of the car into the street. We’ve come a long way with car safety.

I’m not going to get all preachy and judgey and make you feel terrible. This post exists because we want your precious babe to be safe!

Even if you think you’re doing everything right—please read on. I have seen enough new parents make these common mistakes to know that everyone has done one or two, including yours truly.


Chest Buckles

This was the very first error I made when I first clipped my baby in to her car seat. That chest buckle belongs at the chest, or level with your baby’s armpits.  No, not down on the belly or up by the neck. That way in the event of a crash you want that clip pressed into your child’s firm chest bone and not her soft, squishy, delicate internal organs.

Car Seat Blog
Car Seat Blog


Strap Snugness

Dude. You’ve gotta make those straps TIGHT. I know you don’t want to smoosh your tiny tot, but the car seat is basically useless if he isn’t strapped in tightly. How tight should the straps be? You shouldn’t be able to pinch the strap at all if it is tightened properly. Check out this visual. The tighter the straps, the less of a jolt your baby will get during a crash, thus greatly reducing the chance of injury. Check your car seat’s manual to learn how to tighten the straps–most car seats have an easy way to tighten the straps by pulling a tether strap below the crotch buckle.



No Puffy Winter Coats

While we’re on the topic of straps and snugness, did you know your baby should not wear her winter coat in the car seat? Basically all that extra padding, fluff, and insulation in a coat compresses during a crash making the straps loose, which is extremely unsafe (see above). If you doubt me on this one go ahead and test it: go buckle your babe in with her coat on then take her coat off and put her back in the seat without adjusting the straps. Does it pass the pinch test?

I know you want your weeble to be warm so check out these tips for safe layering in the car.

Car Seat Lady
Car Seat Lady


Harness Height

Here’s another one I had no clue about until one of my friends brought it up with me years ago. You’ll notice that your infant and convertible car seats have several slots for the shoulder harnesses. When a child is rear-facing the shoulder harness should be in the slot at or below a child’s shoulder. And a forward-facing child in a convertible seat needs to have the straps start above shoulder height, usually in the top position. A common mistake is for a parent to have their toddler rear-facing with the lower harness height and then change the same seat to forward-facing without adjusting the harness level to the top spot. Check your car seat’s manual to confirm what the safest harness position is for your make and model.

Rear Facing:

Rear Facing - at or below child's shoulder - Orbit Baby
Rear Facing – at or below child’s shoulder – Orbit Baby


Forward Facing:

Forward Facing - at or above child's shoulders - Orbit Baby
Forward Facing – at or above child’s shoulders – Orbit Baby

Rear-facing vs. Forward-facing

Speaking of turning your kiddo around, let’s discuss when you should do it. When I first became a parent it was traditional to flip your rear-facing baby forward soon after his first birthday, sort of like a fun milestone. However, the more current recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics is to wait until age 2, at minimum. This is one of those topics where people’s undies get into a bunch because they feel strongly that their toddler deserves to be facing the same direction as the rest of the family, or that he is somehow being deprived by facing the rear. While I understand that parenting preference, there is actual science that proves rear-facing is safer. You can read all about the research in detail but the gist is that a toddler’s spine is connected with cartilage, not bone, so the risk of a severe spinal cord injury in a crash is far higher for young kids than adults. Rear-facing car seats give far greater support to a child’s head, neck, and spine and prevent the (giant) toddler head from flinging far away from the body.

This isn’t a matter of opinion, it is a matter of fact: rear-facing through the toddler year is just safer. Keep that kiddo facing the back as long as you can!



Location of Car Seat in the Car

You probably know to put your infant car seat in the back seat, far away from the active air bags in the dashboard. But is there a safest location in the back seat? Statistics show that the middle of the back seat is the safest place for your baby because the car cannot take a direct impact in the center.

If your car does not have the LATCH system in the back middle seat then you can use the seat belt to secure the seat. However, it is sometimes difficult to secure the seat tightly in the middle seat. If this is the case, move the seat to a window seat where it can be securely installed.

The Car Seat Lady
The Car Seat Lady


No Extra Stuff

All the car seat safety experts out there agree that there should be no extra stuff added to the car seat. That means all those cute newborn head positioners, strap pads and cup holders aren’t safe because they weren’t tested with the seat and may alter how the seat responds in a crash.

Also, extra stuff like sun shades, cups, and hard books pose a risk during a crash because they become projectiles in a car. Real talk: I know you might be rolling your eyes because don’t we all hand or kids a snack and drink in the back seat? I just did this yesterday. But I just read about some poor little kid who got scalped by his sippy cup when another car ran into his going 45mph. Imagine that anything that is loose in your car—purse, water bottle, toys—can turn into a dangerous projectile flying through your car. It’s just physics, man. Stick to soft books, stuffed animals, and blankets for your little one when in the car.

Booster Seats

Fast forward a handful of years and you might notice your preschooler is big enough to switch over to a booster seat. (Here are some handy guidelines about when to consider switching from a harness eat to a booster.) Booster seats are super easy and convenient because most of them don’t require an install – you just plop the booster in your car, thread the shoulder belt through a loop, and you’re good to go.

However, heads-up about this common booster seat mistake: if the kid exits the car and you’re going to continue driving (after school drop-off, for example) have your child buckle in the empty booster seat before they hop out. A loose booster seat can cause some major injuries flying around the car in the event of an accident (see above).


Trash a Car Seat If:

  • It’s expired. Car seats typically expire every six years. They have an expiration date because plastic weakens and becomes brittle over time—not a great quality to have in something that is supposed to keep your kid alive in a crash.
  • It has been in a crash. Most car seat safety experts advise that you trash a cars seat after it has been in any crash, even a minor one. The good news is that your insurance company may cover the cost of a new one, along with the repairs to your vehicle.
  • It’s a hand me down/second-hand and you don’t know anything about the crash history of the seat.

If all this information has you feeling queasy and anxious, take a deep breath and set up an appointment with a Child Passenger Safety technician to help install your seat or check out your current set-up. Click here to find a U.S. technician and here to find one in Canada.

Life is a highway! Drive safe!

If you get a chance, pin and share the image below. Thanks!

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  • I have a question about booster seats in the winter. My twins will be 4 in January and have been in a booster less than a year. What is the rule with big puffy jackets in the booster with a regular seat belt? I had the boys test it before they went to school today and it made me uncomfortable so I made them take the jackets off for the car ride. Any thoughts?

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  • Another thing I did not see mentioned here, is do not wash the straps! It is ok to wipe them over but they should not be soaked or put in a washing machine. Most companies have sets of straps you can order in the event they get too dirty to wipe clean.

  • Looking at the picture of the child sitting rear facing with her legs significantly bent, I just can’t see how that’s safer. It looks uncomfortable and in the event of a crash I’m pretty sure the legs would go into the bacseat causing broken legs. I’m not a dr or a car seat expert, but I can’t be the only one that sees it that way?

    • in a way you are correct in the event of a severe crash…but which is easier to fix…broken legs or a broken neck/ spine? Which will result in the death of the baby?

      • Thank you. Plus, I recently read a study that suggested that more legs are injured from forward facing because the child’s legs fly up and are compressed by the seat in front of them. I totally hear that it looks awkward when their legs need to bend to fit in the rear facing position, but it still is actually safer : )

  • Its interesting how different the recomendations are in different countries. Here in Sweden they tell you to keep the child rear facing until at least 4 years old, and most of us do.

  • I need help. How can I convince my husband of the importance of abiding by carseat expiration dates? He probably sprained a muscle with how hard he rolled his eyes. He won’t believe that "Big Carseat Bigwigs" aren’t just forcing more money out of us. Any suggestions on how to convert a non believer?

    • I can completely understand where he’s coming from. I feel the same way about toothbrushes and disposable razors – the fuckin’ man is just trying to get me to buy more!!

      In the case of carseats though, there is some validity there. The components of the car seat start to break down over time and may not function properly in a crash. Of course this wouldn’t be the case for all car seats but there’s no way to test that unless you actually stressed the material to the point of failure – "yep, it held up but now it’s garbage because we broke the straps to find out." There’s also a video showing an expired car seat in a crash test (mind you, it’s just one seat)

      Like I said, I totally hear where he’s coming from. Six years probably a generous expiry but I have no doubt that is in place more to avoid lawsuits when an infant fly though the windshield when old straps break, than trying to get more people to buy seats.

      If he figures a $200 car seat lasts 6 years that works out to being about .09¢ a day so you’re not giving the Car Seat Bigwigs too much. Tell him to hold on to his toothbrush longer so it evens out ; )

    • The best explanation I ever received was to think of a little kid’s cheap plastic swimming pool. The pool is made of pre-formed plastic just like a car seat. The pool stays in the yard or garage through extreme weather changes just like a car seat. What happens to the pool after a couple of years? The plastic breaks down and the side eventually cracks while your filling it up. The biggest difference between the pool and car seat is that the pool is thinner plastic, so it’s not going to last as long. But plastic is plastic and all of it WILL eventually become brittle and fall apart.

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