We recently hosted a car seat checking clinic with our friends from Edwards & Co. It was wonderful teaming up to help our community.
This was our second clinic recently, as Nicklyn and Nat helped Police and Plunket with a kindy check not long ago. It's something we'd really like to continue doing where we can, and as staffing allows. We were so grateful to Edwards & Co for lending their staff to support this event.
Incorrectly installed car seats do not reflect parents "not caring enough"
One thing that checking clinics like these make you realise, is that most of the parents who sign up for such events genuinely Give a Crap, and yet so many seats are improperly installed. It's inconsistent.
We're talking about those mums and dads that spend weeks online, reading the different reviews and statistics on various seats. Those who ask questions on Facebook pages, and who carefully review the manual. And yet, even these parents are making simple errors when installing their car seats.
Here are 5 of the most common car seat mistakes we've come across as Child Restraint Technicians. Let us know if any of these look familiar.
1. Car seats fitted loosely, or just not tight enough
The general rule is that you should not have more than 1 inch of movement at the belt path.
What this means, is that your car seat should not shift along the seat belt (or latch strap if using isofix) when pushed. If it does move (and some will move slightly no matter what), the movement should be less than 1 inch.
On Tuesday at the Edwards & Co checking clinic, there was one mum who had really done her homework. She'd carefully read the car seat manual on her Cosco, and watched several installation videos on YouTube. But, after an hour at home trying to install her car seat tightly, she still felt it shifted no matter what.
We checked and it quickly became clear that the seat was too loose. Luckily, it's a style of seat we've fitted many times before, so we knew a few tricks. Nat climbed up inside the car and in a not so glamourous but very effective move, shoved her hips into the top of the car seat so that it wedged it right into the seat. Then she tightened the belt while pushing into the seat.
This was a trick similar to that used by Edwards & Co's Aimee, who climbed into a number of cars to apply pressure from her knees into seats just so there was sufficient weight on the seat to allow a very tight seat belt install.
These two tricks are good ones to keep in mind as you install your car seat. If you can't get things tight, try applying some weight into the car seat whether into the seat bucket with a carefully positioned knee, or into the end of the seat pushing forwards with your hips.
Maybe mum can apply her weight while dad pulls the belt through and tightens it? This extra bit of a push into the seat at the right time and in the right way will allow a good tight seat belt install in most seats.
2. The wrong recline angle
Another common error is that the wrong seat belt path is used on a convertible car seat. Most seats will use Red to indicate the forward facing seat belt path, or Blue to indicate the rear facing seat belt path. Make sure the seat belt is thread through the appropriate pathway.
When installing a convertible car seat, there are usually a number of recline angles. Some are more upright and best for forward facing children, while others are more reclined and more suitable for rear facing. Read your car seat manual to check you've got the right recline set for your child.
For newborns, the general rule is that the recline of the child should be 45 degrees to the ground outside the car.
One challenge is that different cars interfere with the recline angle, and cause the seat to be more upright than it ought to be. This is why the event page encouraged parents to bring a towel, which many car seat manufacturers allow to be used to adjust the recline angle in slanted seats. The towel can be put in the bite of the seat to flatten things out a bit.
We had one experience with a particular capsule which was super upright, even with an added towel. Dad went home for a thicker towel and after a few tries we got the capsule in with a perfect 45 degree angle. By testing with an independent level, we were satisfied baby would be comfortable.
The reason the recline is important is that if baby is too upright, their head can flop forwards because babies have big, heavy heads and weak neck muscles. This is really dangerous as it can impact their breathing if they end up chin to chest.
3. Not using the tether strap, or fixing the tether to the wrong thing
Some car seats need to use their tether at all times. Others, only when forward facing. Others still, don't require tethers. Read your car seat manual to ensure you're using the tether if you need to be - or check with a local Child Restraint Technician.
We helped some parents work out exactly where to clasp the tether on. Many parents simply don't know where the tether anchor is in their car, or they hook the tether onto the wrong thing (such as a cargo clasp hook that isn't actually suitable for securing a car seat).
In some cars, there's a need to install an anchor bolt point. This is very easy for a mechanic to do and does not cost very much.
Why bother using the tether? Simply put, if the car seat manufacturer says to do it, it means they've tested the seat with it in use. You've just paid hundreds of dollars for a car seat that works, and they only guarantee it works if you do that thing up. So do it up! It takes 5 seconds once you how.
4. Poorly fitting straps
When you've got your car seat into the car, you need to get your child into the car seat.
It's easy to see how loose straps happen. It often occurs because different sized children are sharing the seat, or because a caregiver had to get baby out in a hurry and has just forgotten to tighten things up again (easy to do when dealing with a poonami).
Check first to make sure the straps are at shoulder height. For rear facing, at or just below the shoulders. For forward facing, at or just above the shoulders.
To figure out if the harness is tight enough, try to pinch the top of the strap at your child's shoulder. If you can grip it, it's too loose.
The ideal is that you can slide your finger in between baby and the harness, but you can't pinch the strap together.
If there's a chest clasp this needs to be at armpit height. Only car seats designed to the American standard have these clasps (your car seat will have an S standard sticker on it if is it American). Make sure this is done up and positioned nicely.
Also make sure baby isn't wearing anything too bulky. Winter jackets and bulky clothes compress on impact, which will mean the straps are too loose when really needed.
5. The wrong seat
Another common mistake is caregivers using the wrong kind of car seat for their child, given their age and the vehicle they are travelling in.
For example, we had one Granddad come in for a check a few days before our clinic, who had an 8 month old in an Infasecure booster seat and a 3 year old in a Jolly Jumper convertible car seat.
We helped him adjust the seats so that the older child was forward facing in the harnessed Infasecure, and the youngest was rear facing in the Jolly Jumper convertible car seat.
Children under 2 should always be rear-facing where possible. Sometimes the fix is as simple as a car seat shuffle, like it was for this Granddad.
Sometimes, it's better to hire or buy a car seat to complement what you have. If this Granddad didn't have a convertible car seat, and had come in looking for a second booster seat for his 3 year old granddaughter, we would have advised him to instead buy or hire a rear facing car seat for the 8 month old.
While caregivers don't always have the budget for new car seats, most of us have more options than we realise. A practical and common sense approach is key.