A car seat: You won’t be able to leave the hospital without it. In fact, it’s one of the most important purchases you’ll make for your little one in his first year of life. We spoke with Emily Levine, co-founder of The Car Seat Lady, a group with a mission to empower parents to keep their children as safe as possible while traveling by car, to get some important information to ensure you’re using the right seat, the right way, for your baby or toddler. Read on for nine do’s and don’ts of car seat safety.

Car seat - rear facing

Photo: 4moms

DO tighten the straps.

A big issue, Levine says, is keeping straps snug. Most kids are riding around with straps that are too loose. Not sure how tight to make the straps? Levine provides this as a rule of thumb: the straps should be tight enough so that only one finger can fit between the straps and the child’s body at the collarbone, and that you can’t pinch the strap over itself at the collarbone, Levine says. This short video provides a how-to on ensuring properly tightened straps. 

“Tight straps won’t hurt a child, but loose straps in a crash can have terrible consequence,” she adds.

DON’T skip the seat because of inconvenience.

Levine says one of the most troubling mistakes happens when parents decide to skip the car seat altogether.

“We see this all the time in taxis around the city or in friends’ cars to and from playdates,” she says. “This is an especially big problem in cities where families rely on taxis to get around.”

The risk of injury is significant for a child who is unrestrained in the event of a crash. The laws of physics don’t change just because you are in a taxi, on vacation or only going a few blocks.

“Is it really worth risking your child’s life to get to music class on time?” Levine asks, offering more advice. “The very best recommendation I can give is to use an appropriate car seat every time you are in a car, regardless of who is driving, whose car it is or where you are.”

Rear-facing car seat

Photo: 4moms

DO keep your toddler rear-facing until at least age 2.

Previously, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) advised being one-year-old and a minimum of 20 pounds as the minimum for turning your little one forward-facing. However, since 2011, that has changed, with the minimum being 24 months old — but preferably longer. In California, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma and New Jersey, new laws require that toddlers stay in rear facing car seats until their second birthdays.

“All kids should remain rear-facing until they are at least 24 months old, but preferably longer, until they have outgrown their convertible car seat’s rear-facing height or weight limits,” she advises. “Kids are much more flexible than adults and are comfortable sitting rear-facing despite what it may look like to us grown-ups. A child who is turned around too early is at risk for head, spine and neck injuries.”

DON’T use the infant car seat as a seat for the baby when you’re at home.

Simply put, the car seat is for the car; it’s not a bouncy seat or a crib or a bassinet. It’s a car seat for use in the car, Levine says.

She also offers this tip for urban parents who rely on taxis or ride-sharing transportation, like Uber, “If you have a stroller with a bassinet, use the bassinet for walks unless you are planning to take a taxi during that same trip.”

britax-car-seat-image

Photo: Britax

DO consider how often you’ll be installing the car seat and where in the vehicle you’ll need to place it.

This is especially helpful when you’re purchasing a car seat or adding one to your registry.

If you prefer to install the car seat in the center position (the safest place in the car), make sure it will install easily with the seat belt, since most vehicles do not permit installation with lower anchors in the center position,” Levine advises.

She continues, saying, “In this case, you’ll want to consider a car seat with built-in locking devices, which greatly ease a seat belt installation. If you’ll be using lower anchors to install the car seat, look for push on connectors instead of the hook style, since the push-on connectors are much easier to use. Extra safety features like anti-rebound bars and rigid latch are worth considering as well.”

DON’T put the car seat on top of the shopping cart.

Just because it looks like it can fit and you’ve likely seen dozens of other parents doing it at Target or the grocery store, DON’T. The shopping cart does not securely hold the car seat in the top basket and puts baby at risk for injury.

Along the same lines, a car seat should never be placed on the counter or table, the bed or any other surface where a fall could cause injury. 

Remember, when your baby is in his or her car seat outside of the car (like when you’re carrying the infant seat in the house, with the baby inside), the straps should be tightly secured. This is a huge problem that parents are mostly unaware of, Levine says.

Photo: Jim Champion on Flickr

DO seek help to make sure you’re using the car seat properly.

A car seat can save your child’s life — but only if it’s used properly. Make sure you are using yours the right way by having the installation inspected by a certified Child Passenger Safety Technician (CPST) or instructor, Levine says. Inspection stations in your town can be found on SeatCheck.org. Inspection spots are located all over the country, including at many hospitals and fire stations.

DON’T automatically take a hand-me-down car seat.

Always be wary of hand-me-down car seats, Levine warns.

“They might look like they’re in good shape, but they may be missing parts that you don’t know about, or may be expired, broken or recalled,” she says.

Even if you’re using a car seat for a sibling, you should double check recall lists and find the expiration date before you start using it for a new baby.

Photo: Quinn Dombroski on Flickr

DO read the instruction manual.

Read the instruction manual that comes with your car seat.

“Many types of misuse can be corrected by a quick (but careful) look at the instruction manual,” Levine explains. “If you have questions or are confused, call the car seat manufacturer for clarification instead of guessing.”

For more information on car seat safety, visit TheCarSeatLady.com or take advantage of other resources from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration here.

What is your biggest car seat pet peeve? Share it below.

—Jane Putnam