There is so much I didn't know when I became a mother. I didn't know how breastfeeding worked; I didn't know projectile poop was real; I didn't know what sleeping in hour long intervals over the course of weeks does to a person mind, body, and soul; and I definitely didn't know a damn thing about car seats. There is so much, as a new mom, I wish I knew about car seat safety. While a great number of internet PSAs and better-versed friends (eventually) taught me much of what I know now, I still feel retrospective panic when I realize how many things I had been doing wrong that could have been disastrous, or even deadly.
I honestly didn't give car seats much thought before my first child was born. It was like, "Okay, is this the safest brand? Will he fit in it? Will the seat fit in my car?" It was just an item to purchase, install (albeit awkwardly) and then not think about. But the truth of the matter is, there's a lot to consider when it comes to a car seat; things that you have to continually think over well after you've picked your brand and made your purchase. There are a whole bunch of car seat safety tips to take into consideration each and every time you buckle your baby in, for instance, and which car seat you'll inevitably have to transition to once your baby outgrows your initial selection. Seriously, you guys; this never ends.
Now, I'll level with you: there are some people out there who can get a bit, um, overzealous about car seat safety. You probably know one or two of those people (or maybe you are one of these people); the ones who, the minute they see a picture of a baby in a car seat on social media, immediately run through a mental safety check and audibly gasp if something is amiss. In their worse moments, they may even get judgmental about it. Please know that, while a comment might be ill-timed or made publicly when it should have been sent privately, those people (yes, the overzealous ones) have the best of intentions. We all try to forgo judgment and share information it's just, well, in the heat of the moment an information swap may seem more like an outright shaming session. Trust me, a mistake is not a moral failing. After all, we don't know what we don't know, right? Take the photo above, for example: this is one of my son, from back before I realized that the chest clip should have been up higher. I'm grateful to a friend who wasn't a total jerk about it when pointing it out to me. Now I know what to do; now my child is safer; now I can pass that information on to others. See! Improved safety and no judgment required!
And so, in the spirit of not knowing what we don't know, here's a list of things that every new mom wishes she knew about car seat safety. If you've been here and done that, don't beat yourself up. Trust me, you're not alone. If you're a new mom yourself, just consider this a friendly information swap, from me to you.
Safercar.gov has some excellent resources (you will see a lot throughout this article) including information on how to install a car seat. While the seat's manufacturer's manual will have step-by-step instructions, sometimes it's useful to have visuals. (And seriously, have you seen the instruction manuals that come along with baby stuff? I've had college textbooks that were shorter.)
True story: lots of police and fire departments will check your car seat for you. (Also highway patrols and some medical centers.) So, just in case you're still not quite sure if you got it in there correctly, there are people who make it their business to ensure that your baby will be as safe as possible.
While only a handful of states require a child to be rear-facing until 2, current American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations state that unless a child exceeds height and weight recommendations for rear-facing in their particular car seat, children should rear-face until at least 2 years of age. Though some parents list a number of problems with keeping children rear-facing as toddlers, many of these issues can be sorted out with pretty easy fixes!
Once a car seat is installed, give it a good strong tug at the base. Can it move more than 1 inch either side to side or front to back? If so, it needs to be more tightly secured.
The pinch test refers to how tightly your baby is strapped into their seat. Once your child is buckled up, go ahead and try to pinch one of the straps to gather the harness between two fingers. If you can, the straps must be tightened. If not, well done! The straps have passed the pinch test!
You really want to aim for the chest clip to be at armpit level. Much lower or much higher than that is not safe as it does not do its job in securing the straps stay snug and in place (and could potentially cause some pretty serious internal damage, if you get into an accident).
Is that great?! Thanks again, safercar.gov! You will notice areas of overlap: generally speaking it is better to remain in the "younger" category for as long as you (safely) can. As a child of the 80s, who stopped using a car seat at age 3, it still boggles my mind that I even made it to the 90s.
Fo' free, guys! Often (from my anecdotal experience, that is), insurance companies will not even require the minimum requirements be met: if you were in an accident, they will replace your car seat. If you really love your seat and want to keep it (if you can), ensure that your accident falls under the minimum National Highway Safety Patrol requirements for doing so...
Say whaaaaaa?! Yeah. It's pretty cool. Enter your information quickly and easily et voila! You will get updates on car seat recalls as soon as they are announced.
Again, I'm a child of the 80s. When I first heard that some kids should remain in boosters until they were 12, I thought that was absolute bonkers. Then I thought about the fact that seat belts aren't built for tiny, child bodies. As such, there is a 5 step test from Carseatblog.com to tell if your child is ready to ditch the booster all together:
1. Does the child sit all the way back on the vehicle seat?
2. Are knees bent comfortably at the edge of the vehicle seat?
3. Does seatbelt cross the shoulder properly? (it should be centered over the collar bone)
4. Is the lap portion of the seatbelt low – touching the thighs?
5. Can the child stay seated this way for the entire ride, every ride (awake and asleep)?
Until this magical day (and all kids are different, so it will be different for each kid), it's probably best to keep them in a booster.
Because winter coats change the way a car seat's straps sit on your child (and will require you to loosen the straps to get your kid in), bulky coats aren't safe to wear in a car seat. Guys: I know. This is a huge and annoying pain in the ass during the winter. But, coming from someone who deals with this literally every winter for the past four years, it becomes second nature to make the accommodations. (Normally I don't even put a coat on my kid to go out to the car. I put them in fleece pullovers or hoodies or something and then just bring the coat with us to wear once we reach out destination. Blankets in the car are also useful.)
Because aftermarket products are not specifically designed (let alone safety tested) to work with your specific car seat, they can affect the seat's overall safety. Any "extras" (strap covers, head rests, etc) that did not come with your car seat should be avoided.
You know when Beyoncé was in Destiny's Child that she managed to be right in the middle of Kelly and Michelle about 97% of the time? There's a reason: because the center is the best and Beyoncé demands nothing but the best (because she is a golden goddess and deserves it). The same goes in the back seat of your car: statistically, the center back seat is best for car seats. So, think of your child like they're Queen Bey: whenever possible, make sure they're in the center.
There is so much to learn when you're a new parent, and it feels like you could spend every second of every day focused specifically on car safety. Take comfort in knowing that there are a lot of resources out there to help you through this frustrating and confusing time. This is one area where the been-there-done-that moms and a boatload of experts really do have your back.