Why kids shouldn't wear bulky coats in car seats

A car seat technician explains the danger and offers up some simple alternatives.

You’ve probably already heard that thick or bulky coats can make car seats unsafe, because if there’s too much bulk, you can’t get the car seat harness tight enough.

But how bulky is too bulky? How do you test it? And if you ditch the thick jacket, how do you keep your kid warm? Today’s Parent asked Jen Shapka, mom of two and child passenger safety technician and instructor with the Child Passenger Safety Association of Canada, some of the questions we know you have.

Q: What’s the simplest way to check if the car seat harness is too loose?
Shapka:
Try to pinch a horizontal fold in one of the straps above the chest clip. If you can pinch it and grab it, it’s too loose. If you can sort of pinch it but you can’t grab a hold, it’s tight enough. And there should be no slack in the hip area. People used to say to check if you can fit a couple fingers under the strap. But that’s too subjective, since everyone’s fingers are a different size.

Q: Do the straps have to be as tight as they’d be if the kid was just wearing, say, a t-shirt?
Shapka: No, that’s not realistic. Put your kid in a few thin, warm, well-fitting layers, with no extra bunching anywhere. Adjust the harness so it’s snug against the body and you can’t pinch the straps. That’s how the harness should fit. Now try putting your kid in the seat wearing his winter coat. If you have to loosen the straps to make it fit, then he shouldn’t wear that coat in the car seat.

Q: But my kid is going to freeze on his way to the car and when he gets in the car!
Shapka: Have your kid wear his coat to the car, climb in, take it off, buckle up, then put it on (backwards). Or use blankets. You can also start your car and warm it up in advance—but I know that’s not always practical. I know it’s cold. Getting kids buckled in without a warm coat on a cold and windy day is a pain. But the alternative is ejection or partial ejection if you’re in an accident. It’s as simple as that.

You can also look into buying car seat-safe layers—they’re thin, down, compressible layers. They aren’t warm enough to play outside for two hours, but they’re great for running errands. Just be careful not to upsize. It should fit close to the body and fit into the harness.

Q: I live in a rural area. If we get into a crash, and my kid isn’t wearing a thick coat, my kid could die of hypothermia before someone comes to the rescue.
Shapka: Hypothermia is not immediate. The first goal is to survive the crash.

Q: What about the idea of forgoing the bulky jacket for long highway drives, but keeping it on for short neighbourhood rides on slower residential streets, like school drop-off?
Shapka: Statistically speaking, you’re more likely to have a crash closer to home. I feel strongly that every time you get in the car, you should be prepared to be in a crash.

Q: I see tons of parents letting their kids wear puffy winter jackets in the car. Should I say something?
Shapka: If you feel comfortable, sure. My strategy is I make it light and casual. I’ll say something like, “I just learned this thing—it can be dangerous to…” Play dumb and upsell the positives. Nobody likes to feel judged.

Read more:
Car seat cheat sheet>
How to dress your baby for winter>
3 babywearing techniques for winter>

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