Car Seat Safety & Installation Tips

car seat safety installation tipsCar crashes are the #1 cause of death among children. Sadly, incorrect car seat installation is sometimes a contributing factor. In this article we’ll discuss tips to ensure that your baby’s car seat is safely and correctly installed.

Car Seat Regulations

The rules and regulations for car seats depend on where you live; in the U.S. they are covered by state law. In our state, car seat regulations were recently expanded to require longer use of them:

  • Child safety seats are required for children less than 4 years old or less than 40 pounds.
  • Booster seats are required for children ages 4 through 7. A child safety seat is allowed.
  • Only when a child reaches 80 pounds, 4’9″ tall, or 8 years old is no safety seat required.

The best way to find out the car seat rules where you live is to visit your state’s transportation department web site. You can find a link to it from the list of state transportation web sites provided by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Car Seat Recommendations from NHTSA

Beyond what’s required by law where you live, there are recommendations from safety agencies to help keep your child as safe as possible. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommends the following:

Age Recommendation
0-12 months Rear-facing car seat in a back seat with no air bag.
1-3 years Rear-facing as long as possible, then front-facing car seat
4-7 years Car seat as long as possible, then booster seat.
8-12 years Booster seat until seat belt can be worn properly.


Rear Facing or Front Facing?

graco car seat

Graco Snugride Car Seat

The NHTSA recommends keeping your babies rear-facing for at least 1 year, and as much longer as you can. Our pediatrician likewise informed us that the new guidelines are keeping your child rear-facing until 2 years. But let’s be practical: there are good reasons to want to turn your baby around once it’s reasonably safe to do so:

  • It’s easier. Getting your baby in and out of the car seat when it’s rear-facing is tough, especially as your little bundle of joy starts putting on the pounds.
  • They’re happier. Unsurprisingly, our kids were very happy when they got to turn around. Instead of staring at the back seat they can see you, and the windows, and most importantly, the DVD player
  • More room. Rear-facing car seats tend to be smaller, and there’s a limited amount of legroom. When your baby turns around, and has plenty of space for those chunky legs, he or she is going to be much more comfortable.

Of course, I’m all for safety and it is clear why rear-facing positions are safer. For a preemie or a child under 12 months of age, rear-facing is certainly best. Use your good judgement after that.

Car Seat Installation

Installing an infant car seat can be one of the more challenging and frustrating tasks you’ll face, at least until you get the hang of it. Your baby’s car seat should go in the back seat, which is probably already a little bit cramped. Before you start, do a little bit of research:

  1. Put your baby in the car seat (if possible) and make sure the straps are at the right settings. In most cases, the seat needs to be out of the vehicle to adjust these.
  2. Find your vehicle’s user manual and look up the section on child safety seats. It will tell you where to find anchors or LATCH hookups.
  3. Pick the location where the car seat will go, and get it ready in advance. Locate the LATCH anchors or match up the seatbelt and buckle. Recline or move seats to give yourself plenty of room.

Seat Belt or LATCH System?

Car seat base installation

Graco Car Seat Base

Most newer models are compatible with the LATCH system, which essentially provides easy-to-reach steel rungs to which you secure the car seat using metal clips. Theoretically, this is easier than threading a seat belt through the car seat, but that can vary. If you are using a car seat with a removable base, I personally think the seat belt is easier. Install the base (without car seat in it) first, and you have full access to the place where the belt goes and the latch that tightens it.

If both your car seat and vehicle are compatible with the LATCH system, it offers some advantages:

  • Safety. There are two anchor points for base of the car seat, and one for the top (the strap goes over the back of the seat). The 3-strap system holds the car seat firmly in position, arguably more than a seat belt. 
  • Speed. Once you get the hang of it, and especially with the straps adjusted, it’s a simple matter of clicking the three latches into place (or vice-versa) to install or uninstall.
  • Convenience. Since there’s no seat belt involved, it opens up the vehicle a little bit because the straps aren’t in your way all the time.

You may not always have an option for LATCH – sometimes it won’t work with your car seat configuration, or your vehicle doesn’t have enough anchors. In this case, always go with a seat belt to ensure safety. Just give yourself plenty of time, and pull out plenty of slack when threading that belt through the car seat.