We asked our community over on Facebook to let us know the one thing they knew now about car seats, that they wished they'd been told earlier. Here are some of their top tips and tricks, padded out with advice and explanations from our Child Restraint Technicians.
"Whether the straps should be at shoulder level, or just above or below; is different for forward and rear facing ... and I'm still not sure of what happens when!" - Jassie
It's so important to be conscious of where the straps are in relation to your baby every time you travel - but it is easy to forget the nuances.
With most child restraints, the harness should be at, or slightly below, the shoulders when used rear facing (i.e. the car seat is facing the back of the vehicle). When forward facing the harness should usually fit at or above the shoulders.
The positioning is different because the movement of the child in relation to the seat is totally different in an accident depending on whether the child is rear facing (and travelling into the car seat's back), or forward facing (and travelling usually into the harness).
That said, the position of the straps can differ from that general guideline in specific car seats, so it is important to always check your child restraint's manual to make absolutely certain you've positioned the straps correctly. It's also important to keep moving the positioning up as your baby grows older.
Quick tip: Make it part of your daily check as you strap them in to double check the harness shoulder height, and make corrections if you need to.
"Not to wash the straps! I didn't know this eek" - Erin
That's right, you have gotta be careful when it comes to cleaning car seats - and not just when it comes to straps. We always suggest parents check the car seat manual before they clean their car seat to ensure that they clean it in a way that is safe to do.
Harsh chemicals, or the wrong kinds of products, can damage the seat. It may be that there's fire retardants on the straps or covers, which you inadvertently wash off. Or, you could simply weaken the integrity of a harness. Scary, right?
This isn't to say you have to drive around with poo or vomit caked into your car seat straps. It's just that you will have to be gentle - you may be able to use a mild soap and warm water with a flannel to remove this, and then air dry them. Again, your car seat manual / manufacturer will have some advice on how to best clean your particular straps.
Quick tip: if you do have a horrendous situation on your hands which you can't get as clean as you'd like, or your harness is frayed, you can consider replacing the harness. Your retailer will usually be able to link up with the manufacturer to arrange this for you.
"The position of the chest clip and how firm the straps should be" - Kirsty
Don't freak out if you don't have a chest clip: only American Standard seats (the ones with the S sticker in NZ) have them. They are little clips that do up at the chest and help keep baby in.
If your seat has a chest clip then you have to use it. Position it roughly in line with your baby's armpits to ensure it is at the chest. This is important because if it's too low or too high it will hurt them in an accident.
When you have put the straps on over baby, always check that the straps are tight. This means you can't pinch the webbing of the harness. You may be able to slip a small finger in though, and that's okay - perfect even. We don't want the straps to be digging in and making baby uncomfortable.
"Why you need to check height and weight limits in your seat, why rear facing is important, and why you should have a bolted tether" - Hope
Hope, it sounds like you are a car seat expert now! But these three tips are so important for new parents so thanks for sharing.
Height & Weight Limits for Car Seats
All child restraints have specific limits. Your child must be big enough to use the seat, but not too big. Different brands and models of car seats use height or weight based measurements, and some use both. Check your child restraint's manual to ensure you know what the limits are, and make use of your Plunket visits to ensure you know the size and weight of your child to ensure a perfect fit.
Also consider limits for rear facing if you have a convertible seat. If your child reaches a height limit (usually indicated with a shoulder height line on the seat), or weight limit, for rear-facing then you must either turn them forward facing or buy another rear-facing seat with higher limits.
Why Is Rear-Facing Your Car Seat Important?
Physics! In most crashes, the rear-facing child is pushed into the car seat shell. Their little body slides up the back of the seat and then down again. Kinetic force is evenly distributed across the car seat and the child, and forces around the neck and spine are reduced. This makes rear-facing your child significantly safer than forward-facing - provided your child is within the rear-facing limits of their car seat.
Why Should You Have An Anchored Tether?
If your child restraint requires the use of a tether, you must use it correctly. This means it needs to be attached into an anchor bolt. An anchor bolt provides a strong secondary connection between your vehicle and your child restraint. In an accident, this significantly reduces the movement of the child restraint and helps protect your baby from the forces at play in a crash.
A tether is usually found at the back of the car seat, and looks like a strap with a clip on it. The clip is put into a secure anchor bolt in the car. This is different to what are sometimes called "lower anchors" or "isofix" points. An isofix connection sometimes looks similar to a tether strap but you will have two of them and they will connect into the bottom of the vehicle seat on a lower anchor points if you have this available in your car. These connection points are used instead of a seat belt connection, so are the primary connection between the vehicle and the car seat, whereas tethers are always a secondary point of connection.
"How Isofix will only work until 20kg. After that it has to be belted in." - Kerrie
Which brings us onto Kerrie's tip about isofix, or lower anchors. They have lower weight limits than seat belts, so you must switch to using the seat belt to install your child's car seat when that limit is reached.
And, it's not always 20kg. Sometimes it's 18kg, and sometimes it's a bit more than 20kg. The limits are determined by both the vehicle (so check your car's manual), and the car seat (check the child restraint manual). This means isofix seats are generally only options until around 4 years of age.
In general though, we like isofix because it's very easy to get a stable install, and it's hard to accidentally undo. If you travel with other children in particular, you may find comfort in knowing that your baby capsule is impossible for the toddler to accidentally undo.
"Expiry dates including different brands having shorter expiry dates compared to others" - Dawn
Yes that's right!! Car seats expire! This is because the plastics and components in the seat degrade over time. It is not safe to use an expired car seat.
When you buy a car seat, check the expiry so you know how long you can use it for. If you already have a seat then check the manual, the car seat itself for a stamp or sticker, or contact a Child Restraint Technician for some help.
The longest length of time we've seen is 10 years from purchase. But some car seats expire after only 5 years - so check it now if you're unsure.
"If you plan on having multiple kids that some car seats are wider than others. Bought a seat for my first that does until she’s 8 but it’s so wide we ended up getting a different one for her when our second baby came along" - Maddi
The car seat challenge is real for parents with more than 2 babies especially. If you are trying to fit three car seats in the backseat, or 2 car seats and a teenager, you need all the space you can get!
However, even if you have narrow seats you may still need to be a little inventive in some cars, so consulting a Child Restraint Technican is definitely useful too. And sometimes, unfortunately, it just isn't possible to get three across safely and you need to look at upgrading your vehicle to something bigger.
The car seat jigsaw is something we are pretty adept at though. We have had parents come in to see us with all the seats they need but they just can't fit them in right. We sometimes have ideas or can look at things a little differently. It may be that we swap where children sit, or the seats they sit in, to help get things in right while keeping everyone safe. For example, sometimes switching a convertible seat from forward facing back to rear facing, and putting the baby into this, can help improve the fit across the vehicle.
"The fact that car seat laws here in NZ are seriously lacking and are not in line with best practice" - Nicole
Preach! We brainstormed some of the areas where New Zealand law just isn't as good as it could be and came up with the following list:
- In New Zealand there is no minimum age before you can have a child forward facing, and some car seats state you can from 6 months. We think it should be at least 2 years of age because rear facing is so so so much safer for infants.
- In New Zealand, once a child is 8 they legally don't need a booster. But they should use a booster until they fit the adult seat belt (around 148 cm tall).
- In New Zealand, we accept a range of different car seat standards instead of accepting only those with the most rigorous tests. This means there are seats that are legal to use and for sale which are not up to the standard most families expect. (P.S. This is why you should buy from someone who cares about quality.)
- In New Zealand, we don't protect every child's human right to move through public spaces, their right to life, and their right to safety, by making child restraints accessible to all families. The Government or local authorities could do something to ensure even low income families can afford child restraints (e.g. by providing grants or Government issued child restraints). There are other causes which our Government has decided are public health matters - why not the safe transport of children?
- Make it so all Mechanics have to also be Child Restraint Technicians. This way, after you go for a WOF, you'd have someone available to help you reinstall your car seat correctly.
"After market accessories, bracing on the front seats" - Kim
There are a minefield of common mistakes and traps for parents when it comes to car seats and these are just two of them.
After Market Car Seat Accessories: Approach with Caution
We've seen products like little headbands that strap around the car seat and the child to keep the baby's head from flopping forward. It makes us sick. Two reasons: (1) because if the baby's head is flopping it means your car seat is not installed in the optimum position for your child for sleep - you may need to rear face the seat or adjust the recline on the seat, and (2) because we just don't know what happens with that in an accident. And it adds an element of extra risk, because what if it falls down or baby twists it up around their neck? It's too scary for us so we don't sell them.
Then there are after market accessories that are safe to use. Like mirrors that affix to the back of the car so you can monitor baby. Or cupholders designed to work with that particular model and brand of car seat.
Filtering the rubbish from the good stuff is a full time job. Literally, it's our job as a car seat retailer and as Child Restraint Technicians. If you are thinking of adding accessories to your car seat please do contact someone who is up to speed with your car seat for some advice to ensure it's something that will be safe and that will not void any manufacturer promises from the car seat companies.
Can you brace your car seat on the front seat?
Most of the time you shouldn't have your car seat right up against the front seat. There are some very specific exceptions to this, particularly with Diono and Britax car seats (where the manual allows), but it is important to know that jamming the car seat in tightly is not going to be a good idea and is certainly no antidote to a loose car seat install. Instead, get a solid install at the seatbelt or isofix pathway. The seat should not move more than an inch at the beltpath. If you still require the extra leg room and the seat is one which allows bracing, then you can do it - but again, double check the manual first for your peace of mind.
"Which seats have an accident exchange" - Stephanie
Accident exchange is offered by a few car seat manufacturers and is really worth knowing about.
What is car seat accident exchange?
If you have registered with your car seat manufacturer, and are in an accident, they will replace the seat for free within the specified time. The beauty of accident exchange is that it means you can by-pass the insurance companies, who will sometimes quibble over whether the car seat is something to claim under contents, or something to claim under car insurance. It also means you aren't having to settle for the "market value" of a car seat - a value which mightn't be enough to fund a new model. Here at Baby Box, our Maxi-Cosi seats come with a 10 year accident exchange.
Thanks to our 10 mums!
Thank you so much to the gorgeous, generous ladies who contributed to this blog post and inspired us to focus on the most relevant and lesser known tips for first time parents. You rock!
Do you need help with car seats in Paraparaumu? Visit our shop!
At our shop in Paraparaumu, north of Wellington, we are always happy to help you check you have your seats installed correctly. We are caregivers, just like you, and while we all have the best of intentions we realise that no one is perfect. There's no shame in having a conversation and it's totally free to do so.
We have a Child Restraint Technician on duty almost every day - but you can always call us just to make sure we'll be available when you need us. If we install the car seat for you, we do charge a small fee for car seats not bought from us (this covers insurance, staff time, the cost of being a registered and qualified technician etc). But, we always check for free and we always answer questions for free.