After strapping your child into his or her car seat, ask yourself whether you'd be comfortable flipping the seat upside down. Remember that the chest clip should be at armpit level and the straps should be tight enough to pass the pinch test.
First, I'd like to clarify that I'm not advocating that parents should be flipping their kids upside down before every car ride. Just that they should feel confident that their child would be safe IF the car seat was flipped over in an accident. I think this is a great visual and shows just how important proper car seat use is.
Second, please think about which slots the shoulder straps should be placed in. *Please read your car seat's manual first because there are some exceptions.* But with most car seats, when they are rear-facing, the straps should be at or below their shoulders, and when they are forward-facing, the straps should be at or above their shoulders. Again, always check your car seat's manual first!
Third, the "pinch test" is a test you do after your child is buckled in and the chest clip is in the proper place. You shouldn't be able to pinch any of the strap between two fingers. *This test should be done near the shoulders.* If you can pinch the strap, here's what to do: Move the chest clip back down, tighten the straps, move the chest clip back up and test again.
Fourth, correct car seat installation is just as important. The first thing you'll want to do is read both your car manual and the car seat manual. A few key points:
- There should be less than an inch of movement of the car seat at the belt/latch path.
- Always use the top tether when forward-facing.
- Only uses the latch system OR the seatbelt to install your car seat. Never use both (with the exception of a few brands).
- Check your car seat's manual. If you need help installing your car seat or have any questions about which seat would be best for your child or the best fit in your car, call your local Child Passenger Safety Technician (CPST). Remember that not all fire departments or police stations have a CPST and may not be educated about car seats. To find one, click here: http://cert.safekids.org
Fifth, and this is a big one that will probably start some controversy: Rear-facing as long as possible is always the safest option. Both the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend rear-facing car seats to the MINIMUM of 2 years old. But ideally they should rear face until they max out the seat's weight or height limits (whichever comes first).
There is a common misconception that once a child's feet can touch the back of the seat, they need to be forward-faced because their legs could become injured in an accident. This is simply not true. Their legs are actually LESS likely to sustain injuries while rear-facing.
Some people may say, "My child looks so cramped rear-facing." But truthfully toddlers are extremely flexible and can find very creative places to put their legs to get comfortable. Please consider extended rear-facing your child. Car accidents are the leading cause of injury and death in children.
People might also say, "Twenty years ago I didn't even wear a seat belt and I'm perfectly fine!" Well, that person got lucky. There are many children who are not alive today to tell their story. Times have changed. There are more drivers on the road today. We have more distracted drivers due to cell phones. We also know a lot more than we knew back then about children's bones and development. Car seats are constantly evolving to become safer. There was once a time when cars didn't even have seat belts or airbags. Do you know why cars have seat belts and air bags now? Yup! Because it's SAFER.
Sixth, I want to talk about "aftermarket products." These are products sold separately from the car seat itself. Things like infant inserts*, shoulder pads, toys that hang on the carrying handle, winter buntings**, and seat protectors*** should NOT be used. Those items were not crash-tested with that seat and could cause the seat to malfunction in an accident. BUT, if your car seat came with an infant insert or pads, those are perfectly safe to use. Click here to read more about aftermarket products: http://csftl.org/non-regulated-products
**As far as winter buntings, there are some exceptions. As long as the material doesn't come between the baby and the car seat and/or straps, it can be used. Always be aware and make sure it doesn't affect installation. To go along with this, no puffy coats should be worn in a car seat. The coat can be compressed in an accident leaving the straps not fitted correctly. You are best to dress you child in light layers (onesie, long sleeve shirt, fitted fleece jacket) then cover them in a blanket once buckled in. Click here for more ideas to keep your child safe and warm during the winter: http://csftl.org/hello-winter-good-bye-coat
***The thick, grippy material of seat protectors interfere with correct installation. Using a thin towel or receiving blanket to protect your seats is allowed by most manufacturers. Again, always check your manual first.
Seventh: Never buy a used car seat unless it comes from someone you can absolutely trust. You can't always tell whether a car seat has been in an accident or whether it was cared for properly. In addition, every car seat has different wash and care instructions. I'm going to sound like a broken record here...but...always read your manual!
Thanks for reading!
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