(And why it is really important to avoid them)
I remember laughing at my husband, my pregnant stomach heaving up and down with my chuckles, as I watched him struggle to install the infant car seat we had just purchased. I thought his confusion reflected the new roles we were about to take on, him, the clueless father like the ones I used to watch on TV. “Here, I’ll help,” I said, knowingly.
And then I looked at the directions. It wasn’t a pamphlet, it was a book of directions. “Wow,” I said as I started to read the first paragraph, “Ummmm…”. Sheepishly, I handed the book back to my husband.
We failed. I called my mom friends to get their advice.
“Call the police,” they told me that my town had a program where a police officer will come to your home and install the baby’s car seat.
I couldn’t believe our luck. When the officer came, it took him a good 20 minutes to install the seat. He explained to me that he had undergone an entire week of training to learn how to install infant and child car seats. He also told us that more than half of all car seats are installed improperly, and that can make the difference between life and death should you ever be in a car accident.
Well, that was a sobering thought. But he was right. Car seats, according to Safe Kids Worldwide, can reduce the risk of death by as much as 71%, an extraordinary statistic considering auto accidents are the #1 cause of death for children ages 0-19.
So what can parents do to keep their children safe? There are common mistakes that you can avoid:
Putting your child in the next level car seat too soon.
I made this mistake. We start our babies in rear-facing cars seats and then when they were a year old we put them in forward facing car seats and then booster seats, cause that was how you did it, right? Wrong. The guidelines have become much stricter for a reason – it can keep your baby safe. Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommend all children ride in a rear-facing care seat until they are at least 2 years old or they reach the weight and height limits set by the seat manufacturer.
Research has shown that rear-facing seats distribute the force of a crash over a large area of a baby or toddler’s body, keeping them safer. The longer you can keep your child in a rear facing seat, the better, so find one that has a higher weight and height capacity.
Then, when your child is ready, there is the forward-facing seat with the five-point harness that attach to your vehicle. The NHTSA says to keep your child in this type of seat “until he or she reaches the top height or weight limit allowed by your car seat’s manufacturer.” These limits can vary but you can look at the NHTSA’s car seat finder tool, you have a choice of either a 5-point harness seat or a booster seat for two entire years, between ages 4 and 6.
Any parent can tell you stories of older children (and sometimes even babies!) who resist being shackled in a car seat. Tell your child this is the kind of seat belts NASCAR drivers use, and wouldn’t they know what’s best?
And then you move to the booster seat phase. If you’re like me, you’re probably tired of shelling out all this money for car seats (they are not cheap). But consider this: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says booster seats can reduce a child’s risk of serious injury by 45 percent. They are designed to raise your child’s body to a height where they can safely wear the car’s built-in seat belt. Consumer Reports says high-backed boosters are safer than backless ones because they do a better job of properly positioning the seat belt across the child’s chest, hips and thighs.
Ignoring federal recommendations
Go by the federal recommendations from the experts at NHTSA or the Academy of Pediatrics instead if your state’s laws. The federal government’s recommendations are generally stricter and based on the recommendations of highways safety and crash test engineers, not local politicians.
Consider this: Most state laws don’t specify that children should sit in the back seat, but many children were killed by air bags before parents were advised to put them in the back seat because their bodies are too small to absorb the force. The AAP recommends children stay in the back seat until they are 13 years old.
Not getting (often free) help
If you’re not lucky to have a local police department that will come and install your car seat (love you, Bernards Township, NJ Police Dept!) you can still find help. Like the officer that came to help me, certified experts train for as much as 40-hours to learn how to install a car seat correctly! Both the NHTSA and Safe Kids provide lists of local car seat checkups, where experts can spot the critical mistakes that get kids killed, like if your car seat or its straps are too loose, or if your straps or chest clip are positioned at the wrong height. And better still, this help is often free!
Not reading through the books
Did I say books? I mean manuals, but really, they’re more like short novels. And every word counts. Take the time to focus on both the car seat manual and your car manual (you know, that book you throw in your glove compartment for your husband). But this is vital: Safe Kids did a study that showed 64 percent of parents aren’t using the top tether that keeps a car seat from pitching forward. Failure to use it can result in serious head injuries. The seat manual will tell you where to find the top tether, and your car’s manual will tell you where to attach it. It’s worth it.
Reuse and recycling a car seat
No, no, no and no. Here’s why: you don’t know what history that car seat has had and a not-new car seat may be lacking in recent safety upgrades. It’s just like helmets, once you crash in one, it’s no longer considered safe. Car seats get a lot of wear and tear (you’ll see!) and straps and hooks can look fine, but be weakened by prior use. It is worth the money to buy a new car seat that will have all the latest safety technology. For the amount of time we spend in our cars, your child’s life could depend on it.