7 deadly car seat mistakes even experienced parents make

7 deadly car seat mistakes even experienced parents make

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Once you've driven around with a baby on board for a while, you can grow a little nonchalant about safety. You bought the seat, you installed it, your child is buckled into it, all is well.

Maybe so. The car seat industry has changed rapidly over the last few years, and some of the rules have changed. And some of the things you thought you knew? You were wrong about.

I had a pretty scary conversation with Emma Olenberger, Community Relations & Traffic Safety Specialist and Certified Child Passenger Safety Technician Instructor for AAA Northern California, Nevada & Utah. The following 7 items are all things I did wrong -- or things I see my fellow parents doing wrong every day.

Think you're getting everything right? You may be surprised.

  1. Not reading the manual
  2. Forgetting to buckle in empty booster seats
  3. Moving kids too quickly to the next car seat phase
  4. Letting kids sit in front seat before age 13
  5. Not strapping in children tightly enough
  6. Buying knockoff car seats online
  7. Ignoring expiration dates

It sure is easier learning how to install a seat by watching a YouTube video. But there's a lot of important stuff you're missing by storing the car seat manual unread in a drawer: installation and usage instructions, weight limits, expiration date. Olenberger says she talks to parents all the time who don't read the manuals for their vehicles and car seats -- or who read the manual and do everything it says, regardless of whether those instructions are suitable for their child/vehicle.

Such an overly anxious parent might, for example, install the car seat using both the car's seat belt and LATCH system. The more safety the better, right? Not really -- though there are a couple of car seats on the market (the Clek Foonf and Nuna Pipa) that are installed this way, most vehicle/car seat manuals specifically advise picking one or the other or risk improperly distributing crash forces. Confusing? Read your manuals carefully and it won't be.

When your child is in his booster seat, he's securely buckled in and protected. But when he gets out, that unbuckled seat could be a deadly projectile in an accident. If your child is old enough to buckle himself into the seat, he's old enough to remember to buckle it up when he gets out, Olenberger advises.

Some booster seats, such as the Chicco KidFit, Graco's Affix boosters, and the Britax Parkway SGL, have lower anchor connectors on the seat that keep it fastened to the vehicle even when not buckled in. Hey, didn't I just say not to use LATCH and seat belts at the same time? It's confusing, Olenberger notes -- but the seat belt is actually taking the crash force for booster'd children. The LATCH connectors are just keeping it in place.

Believe me, I get it: Your kid cries when he's rear-facing, and you can't tend to him. Or he's chafing at being in a "baby" seat when his classmates are in boosters. "I tell parents that if I could ride rear-facing, I would," says Olenberger. "As you move to each new phase, your risk for injury increases."

Your child is safer rear-facing, he's safer in the back seat, he's safer using a convertible seat than a booster. Steel yourself to the complaints and refuse to take risks.

I have to confess -- I've been letting my daughter Violet, age 9, ride in the front seat for almost a year. I figured because she was so tall (now 5'3"!) that she could fit in the seat belts no problem. But Olenberger clued me in -- the problem is not fitting into the seat belts. The problem is that the bones of young children are still soft, and that passenger-side airbag, flying out with massive force, can cause facial/internal injuries.

When do those bones harden? Puberty, which occurs at about age 13. My daughter is furious with me, but I'm not bending: She's in the backseat again, and will stay there until 13.

You're supposed to put a dog collar on loosely enough that you can slip two fingers between the dog's neck and the collar. Is that why parents get confused and don't tighten harness straps enough?

You should not be able to pinch fabric folds at the shoulder, Olenberger advises, and harness straps should be in the right fit slot and not twisted. "Your baby actually likes the security of tight straps," she says. "And it's important to have them secure, because in a collision, the child's body will move until it hits that harness. Keep it tight to minimize how much the child's body moves."

Keep that five-point harness retainer clip at armpit level too: "If it's lower, the child could fall out because the straps are too loose, or it can put pressure on the belly, which is where your internal organs are." Don't let your child push that clip down or play with it, either. If he's fidgety, give him a toy.

It seems amazing, but some parents love a bargain so much they're tempted into buying car seats online that have not passed U.S. safety standards. If that upscale-brand seat seems like an amazing bargain on eBay or Craigslist, it might be because it's not approved for sale in the United States. Car seats are pirated just like DVDs and gold watches: buy them at reputable retailers, and, Olenberger cautions, make sure the car seat says it meets or exceeds Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 213.

That standard specifies that seats must have a permanent, visible label certifying "This child seat system conforms to all applicable Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS 213)." Generally the label is a black-and-white one along the side or bottom of the seat's plastic shell.

This label may also have installation instructions, child weight limits, the name and address of the manufacturer/distributor and the date it was made -- if these details are not on the safety standards label, there will be different stickers, often located on the seat's side. There may or may not be a line or separate label certifying the seat for use in an aircraft.

You may also be able to find this information in the seat's instruction manual and on packaging, but the on-seat label is the one you can rely on. Don't see one on your bargain seat? Don't buy it!

Parents tend to regard car seat expiration dates with skepticism. C'mon. It's not milk. How can plastic go bad?

But if you think about the way car seats are used, it makes perfect sense. Car seats are out in your vehicle, heating up every day, cooling off at night, getting baked by the sun. "You want the plastic to distribute crash forces," points out Olenberger. If it breaks down, it doesn't do that as well.

Car seats expiration dates used to be a standard 6 years, Olenberger says, but these days some manufacturers are putting out seats that have a 10- or 12-year lifespan. Check your date! It may be on the seat's bottom, it may be on the sticker that states the model name, number and manufacture date.

Can't find yours? Just contact the manufacturer; Olenberger says they're eager to help consumers use their products correctly.

And that's it. Did you learn anything? I did. And my daughter resents me so fiercely from the back seat. It'll be a funny story someday. I hope.

Photos courtesy Thinkstock or by author.

Opinions expressed by parent contributors are their own.

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