7 car seat mistakes you’re probably making

Installing a car seat might seem easy, but it’s actually quite complicated. The reality is most kids aren’t riding as securely as they should be. The good news: with a bit of know-how from experts, you can avoid the most common errors and ensure your kid’s riding safe and snug.

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When Monica Cheung was pregnant with her now-four-month-old son, Elliott, she spent months researching car seats, asking friends for recommendations and reading online reviews. After finally deciding on and purchasing one, Cheung signed up for a free car seat clinic to have the installation checked. “Some of our friends thought we were being too intense, that it was overkill,” says Cheung. “But the possibility of putting our little one’s life at risk was not something we were willing to do.”

Heading to the clinic, Cheung felt prepared; she and her husband, Aaron Igel, had looked at Transport Canada’s website, carefully read the car seat manual and watched several installation videos on YouTube. But it quickly became clear to clinic staff that the seat was too loose, and though two different volunteers tried to install it tightly, it just wasn’t working. “One volunteer told us that perhaps this was just the wrong car seat for our car,” says Cheung. “He suggested we return it and buy another one, but we had purchased the car seat months before. We wouldn’t be able to return it.”

Eventually, Igel was able to install the seat securely with the help of a cut-up pool noodle wedged under the base, but Cheung left feeling disheartened. “We thought we had done our homework,” she says. “This just made us feel like failures.”

While getting the car seat checked wasn’t a good experience for Cheung, it was the right thing to do. Studies show that the correct use of car and booster seats can reduce the risk of death by up to 71 percent and of serious injury by up to 67 percent in a crash. Yet a recently published Nova Scotia observational roadside study found that 55 percent of car seats and booster seats were installed or used incorrectly—and that number would be higher if the standard for correct use had been based on the latest safety recommendations rather than the provincial car seat laws. According to the Canadian Paediatric Society, as many as 80 to 90 percent of car seats are used incorrectly.

Unless you’ve had your seats checked by a certified child passenger safety technician, there’s a good chance your kids aren’t riding as safely as they could be. Wouldn’t you rather head out on the road knowing your seats are installed right and your kids are properly buckled in? Read on to find out what the most common errors are and how to fix them.

1. Loose installation
Installing a car seat seems like it should be simple enough: Attach the universal anchorage system (UAS—also known as LATCH in the US) connectors to the corresponding anchor points in your car, or thread the lap belt through the base, pull the straps tight, and away you go, right? Not so much. As anyone who’s ever actually installed a car seat will tell you, it’s rarely that easy—which might be why having a loose seat is the top installation problem.

“I think parents try to attach a car seat, and it’s loose—they know it should be tight, but they have no idea how to get it tight,” says Katherine Hutka, president of the Child Passenger Safety Association of Canada (CPSAC) and a health promotion specialist for Child Safety Link at the IWK Health Centre in Halifax. “So they think, This must be good enough.

Each car seat is different, and reading the manuals for both the seat and your car are vital first steps, but as a general rule, there should be less than one inch of movement at the belt path when you give the seat a firm shake with your hands. “Welded to the car is not necessary, but if you have to measure, it’s too loose,” explains Jen Shapka, a CPSAC-certified car seat technician in Barrie, Ont. “There is tremendous movement during a crash, so it’s important to start out snug.”

By law, all cars manufactured after 2002 must have UAS anchors, but that doesn’t mean they’re always the best option. You might not be able to get the proper angle or snugness using the UAS, especially if you have multiple car seats. If you’re using the lap belt to install your seat, be sure to check that the belt locks properly, and use a locking clip if necessary; some car seats have other locking mechanisms, too. (Hutka points out that either the UAS or the seat belt should be used, not both.)

Another common error when installing a seat with the seat belt is using the wrong belt path—in convertible seats, one will be used in the rear-facing position and another for forward-facing. And while pushing on the seat to get a tight installation is fine, don’t sit or stand in a seat or use your foot to press it down. “A carefully positioned knee in the seat is OK, to give some extra pressure,” says Shapka, “but you don’t want to put your full body weight in it.” The shock-absorbing foam and structure could be damaged if you do this.

When it’s time to switch the seat to forward-facing, there’s also the top tether strap to contend with. The Nova Scotia roadside observational study found that 28 percent of forward-facing seats had issues with this. Hutka says many parents simply don’t know where the tether anchor is located in their car, and they may hook the tether onto the wrong anchor (such as a cargo hook or other random loopy-type thing that isn’t actually suitable for securing a car seat). Some might just forgo using it entirely out of frustration or the misguided belief that it’s not necessary. Again, your car manual is your best friend. Read it, figure out where the top tether anchor point is, and do that sucker up.

2. The wrong recline angle
Getting the recline angle just right on a rear-facing seat can be tricky, but it’s crucial. Babies have big, heavy heads and weak neck muscles: If the seat is too upright, your babe might end up chin to chest, which can interfere with breathing. Being reclined also protects your little one’s spine in a crash by spreading the force of impact across the entire body.

Most seats now come with a built-in indicator that will tell you if it’s installed at the proper angle—generally around 45 degrees. But it’s important to check your car seat’s manual, Shapka says, because the recommended recline angle for some seats changes with the weight of your baby. And Hutka notes that some seats are safety tested to allow for a more upright position. If you’re having trouble getting the right angle, the manual should also offer suggestions for how to correct it—likely wedging a tightly rolled towel or pieces of pool noodle under the base.

Shapka also recommends getting a seat that allows for different angles of installation in the rear-facing position, as newborns should be more reclined than older babies and toddlers, who have stronger neck muscles and may appreciate being a bit more upright. If your car seat allows for this, the manual will have weight and age guidelines.

Many seats come with infant head positioners to offer more side-to-side cushioning (you may also be able to order one at a small additional cost from the manufacturer—check with them directly). But don’t purchase a head positioner that isn’t made specifically for your car seat—it will not have been crash-tested with your seat, and it could affect the fit of the harness (meaning your little one is not as secure as she should be) or make the chin-to-chest problem worse.

3. Loose or poorly positioned straps
Nothing will make a harried parent loosen a car seat harness faster than a wailing newborn (“Why is she crying? Are the straps too tight? Is she in pain?!”) or a whiny toddler (“Maamaaaaa! Too tight! Too tight!”) in the back seat. But a headache is a small price to pay for keeping your kid safe.

To figure out if the harness is too loose, try to pinch the top of the strap between your thumb and forefinger at your child’s shoulder. You shouldn’t be able to grip the strap at all; if you can, it’s too loose. And make sure the chest clip is at armpit level—any lower means the clip isn’t doing what it’s designed to do: keep the straps in position on the shoulders and ensure the space around the neck isn’t too big. “Newborns, especially, are small and squishy and flexible, and have just been birthed through a small opening,” explains Shapka. “So if you have the chest clip really low, the gap is much larger than it should be,” she says, adding that this can lead to a baby being ejected from the car seat during a crash.

It’s also important that the straps are routed through the proper slots in the seat back. The different heights allow for adjustment as your little one grows but are also there to offer the best protection depending on the seat position: for rear-facing babes, the top harness straps should go through the slots positioned at or just below the shoulder, and when your tot switches to forward-facing, the straps should be at or just above the shoulder. It’s all about physics, baby.

Another essential element in making sure your kid’s secure: what he’s wearing. Bulky winter clothes can interfere with harness position and tightness. Same goes for those baby bunting bags that provide a layer between the car seat and the baby. “The cuddle bags are thick and bulky, and even the thin ‘summer weight’ ones can cause the harness to fit the child differently,” says Shapka. Is it a pain to wrestle a toddler into and out of a snowsuit for car rides? Totally. But it’s worth it to keep your little one safe and secure. “Dress kids in warm, light layers, and once they’re securely in the seats, you can put blankets on top,” suggests Hutka, adding that you can also use a cover that goes over the car seat like a shower cap.

4. Moving to a forward-facing or booster seat too soon
While some provinces and territories have specific laws that outline the weight, height or age requirements for moving your little one from the rear-facing to forward-facing position (in Ontario, it’s being 20 pounds; in Nova Scotia, it’s 22 pounds and a year old; and in Alberta, it’s 22 pounds, a year old and able to walk), others, including Manitoba and New Brunswick, just require drivers to follow the height and weight limits for the rear-facing position set out by the manufacturer of the car seat they’re using. But Hutka says parents need to be aware that these are the bare minimums and don’t reflect current best-practice recommendations. “As long as your child can ride rear-facing, they are safer rear-facing,” she says. “So we’re talking to about age two or three.”

In Sweden, children often ride rear-facing until the age of four and beyond, and the country has one of the lowest motor vehicle fatality rates for kids in the world. While you might balk at the thought of your three-year-old folding her legs against the seat back, consider that kids tend to sit in pretzel-like configurations most of the time anyway. And if the worst happens and you’re in a serious crash, broken legs heal a lot easier than spinal cord injuries.

Most convertible car seats on the market will accommodate kids rear-facing up to 40 pounds and forward-facing up to 65 pounds, so don’t rush the transition to a booster seat, either. “You want to keep a child in a seat with a five-point harness until they are at least 40 pounds and over four years old, and are able to sit correctly in a booster,” says Hutka. That means no slouching, twisting, playing with the seat belt or falling asleep and slumping over. (If you happen to have a car-ride snoozer, consider a high-backed booster to provide a comfy side headrest and help dissuade a full-body forward slump.)

And while older kids might beg and plead to ditch the booster because their friends no longer use one, just remember that in many provinces kids need to be at least 145 centimetres tall (or about four-foot-nine) and/or weigh 80 pounds before they’re ready to ride with a seat belt alone—milestones most won’t reach until they’re nine or 10, maybe even older. And many booster seats are now made for kids up to 100 pounds or more. While some provinces allow kids to ditch the booster at age eight or nine (regardless of their height or weight), Transport Canada notes that to use a seat belt safely, your kid should be able to sit up straight with his back flat against the seat back and his legs hanging over the seat without slouching, and his feet should be flat on the floor. Think of it like this: No child has ever actually died of embarrassment, but tragically, the same can’t be said for kids and car accidents.

5. Using the wrong seat for your kid or your car
The good news is that in the Nova Scotia observational roadside study, most kids (91 percent) were using the right kind of car seat for their age and height. But again, this was determined based on the current laws, not the latest safety recommendations.

In general, it’s safest for children to stay in each car seat, progressing through the stages, until they outgrow the seat’s height and weight limits, but fit is also an important factor. Most seats require a certain amount of space between the top of your kid’s head and the top of the car seat to protect them properly during a crash, says Shapka. “So you can have a child who is under the weight and the height limits, but if the child has a long torso, they might be reaching that fit requirement first.”

Your manual will provide all of the fit guidelines, so be sure to check them as your kid grows. While you won’t be able to predict what body type your newborn will have, it will be important by the time he’s graduating to a convertible seat and then a booster seat. If possible, take your child with you to pick out a new seat so you can gauge fit.

More importantly, find a store that lets you try a demo seat in your car to see if it will install correctly. As Cheung discovered, not all seats fit well in all cars, and this is especially true if you’re trying to cram in multiple car seats. While doing three across can be tricky (or even impossible, depending on how wide your car is), there are narrower seats on the market that fit better than others—but you’ll still need to try them out. Come prepared with your car manual so you have information on anchor points.

Airbags are also a worry. Shapka says side airbags aren’t generally an issue because they don’t deploy into the space a car seat occupies, but front airbags are extremely dangerous: “Never, ever, ever put a rear-facing car seat in front of an airbag. Rear-facing seat plus airbag kills children.” (Front air bags can hurt older kids, too. All kids should ride in the back seat until at least the age of 12.) While the middle of the back seat is statistically considered the safest position—so the most vulnerable child would ideally go there—it’s more important to get the seats installed properly in whatever configuration works best for the car and your family’s convenience.

6. Using a second-hand car seat
A “preloved” car seat isn’t totally out of the question, but unless you know with absolute certainty that a seat has never been involved in even a minor fender-bender (see No. 7) or that there are no missing or damaged parts, it’s best to avoid it. Ultimately, it’s all about the source. “There’s a difference between getting it from your sister or getting it from someone on Kijiji,” says Shapka. “What it comes down to is this: Would you trust the person you’re getting it from with your child’s life?”

If you decide to use a second-hand seat—even if it’s your own seat when baby number two (or three…) comes along—there are a few things to consider. “You’re looking to make sure it hasn’t been damaged, it’s not expired and it’s not missing any parts,” says Hutka. Start by checking the expiry date; it might be stamped on the seat, but if not, look it up in the manual or call the manufacturer. The expiry date exists for good reason, including accounting for wear and tear that isn’t visible to the naked eye, like worn out or weakened parts. Next, review the manual and carefully examine the car seat to make sure it’s not missing any parts. (Can’t find the manual? Most manufacturers have them online or will send you a replacement upon request.)

The biggest reason to opt for a new car seat is simply that safety technology keeps getting better. “Without a doubt, a seat available today is safer than a seat on the shelf six years ago,” says Shapka, adding that this doesn’t necessarily mean an older seat is unsafe. But some car seats made before 2012 don’t meet the current safety requirements, and it’s illegal to advertise, sell or give away those that don’t. When in doubt, Shapka recommends calling the manufacturer to ask if a seat is still safe for use.

7. Using a car seat after an accident
You should never use a car seat that’s been in a collision, even if your child wasn’t in it at the time, according to Transport Canada—the force of the impact can weaken or damage parts of the seat, which means it may not do its job and protect your child in a future accident.

Almost all car seat manufacturers require you to replace your car seat or booster after any crash—even minor fender-benders or parking-lot dings. “Most people don’t consider that to be a crash, but manufacturers often do,” Shapka says. “I tell parents to call the manufacturer if they’re unsure.” (Only two manufacturers of seats sold in Canada don’t require replacement, so long as the collision meets all of the following “minor crash criteria”: the vehicle was able to be driven from the site; the door closest to the seat was not damaged; there were no injuries to anyone in the vehicle; the airbags didn’t deploy; and there’s no visible damage to the car seat or booster seat.)

When it comes to covering the cost of a new car seat or booster, insurance companies have varying policies—some won’t pay out if your kid wasn’t in the seat during the crash, but Shapka recommends fighting for it since the manufacturer of your seat likely requires replacement. One more thing to keep in mind: Before you throw out an old car seat, cut the restraint and UAS straps so that it can’t be easily picked up and used or sold.

Online resources:
* Transport Canada: tc.gc.ca (under “Road,” see “Child Safety”)

* Child Passenger Safety Association of Canada: cpsac.org

* Parachute Canada: parachutecanada.org

* Canadian Car Seat Network: canadiancarseatnetwork.com

* St. John Ambulance: sja.ca (look under “Community Services”)

* Car Safety and Kids: carsafetyandkids.ca

A version of this article appeared in our April 2016 issue, titled “7 car seat mistakes you’re probably making,” pg. 62-66.

Read more:
Toddler parents: Keep that car seat rear-facing!
Car seat cheat sheet
5 car seats for baby to toddler (and beyond)

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