Not all modern day baby gear is indispensable, but there are some things we truly can't live without as parents, and car seats are at the very top of that list. After all, you can't even drive your baby away from the hospital without one. Still, as life-saving and truly essential as these contraptions are, they can also be frustrating to figure out, hence the popular hacks you see on the internet that enterprising parents have invented, because we're all looking for ways to make using the dang things easier. But are these car seat hacks actually dangerous? Turns out, yes.
We consulted Lorrie Walker, training manager and technical advisor for the Safe Kids Buckle Up Program, for her take on some of the shortcuts and additions used by well-meaning (but perhaps ill-informed) moms and dads to improve car seat travel... and it turns out almost anything you do beyond exactly what it says in the directions that came from the manufacturer with your individual car seat could be dangerous. "You have to follow the instructions for your particular seat," Walker tells Romper. "Not your neighbor's seat, not the one you saw on the internet... your seat!"
There's a very important reason for this: While you might think many car seats are similar enough, they're really not; even the most seemingly insignificant features are part of a specific architecture meant to keep your baby safe in a crash.
"Don't overthink what engineers have designed," says Walker.
The single most important thing you have to be concerned about is making sure that your little one's car seat is installed correctly. Sounds obvious, but a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study revealed that 46% of car seats and boosters are used incorrectly, reported Kid Sitting Safe. If you misplaced the directions that came with your seat, you can usually find them online by looking up the make and model; you can also seek help from a certified child passenger safety technician (Google someone in your area), and some local fire and/or police stations also offer assistance to parents, too.
Even if your car seat is safe and secure, you might be tempted to make some adjustments. Maybe your child doesn't seem quite comfy enough, or you're looking for a way to keep her entertained, or you think you can rig the seat to make it even more secure. Whatever hack you're looking to try... well, you probably shouldn't. Here are a few car seat hacks you should avoid.
We all know what it's like to peek back at our sleeping tot and cringe at the seemingly unnatural angle of her neck. That's why it's no surprise that some parents are using "forehead slings," which are essentially strips of fabric attached to elastic that slip over your child's forehead and around the top of the car seat to keep their chins from falling forward as they doze. But as uncomfortable as "head flop" might look, Walker advises against using these. In some car seats, she explains, a child's head and neck are actually meant to move in a crash as the energy from the impact is being absorbed by the car itself. Safety in a collision is, of course, much more important than a cozy sleeping position.
2Head Cushion/Neck Supports
As with the forehead slings mentioned above, parents generally resort to head supports and neck pillows because their little ones seem fidgety and ill-at-ease in their car seats. And because many of these additions are sold by reputable manufacturers, we assume they're safe... but the truth is, if an insert wasn't designed to go with your specific seat, then it might not be safe at all.
"Lots of times parents will say 'My baby looked so uncomfortable I added a pillow, etc.,'" says Walker. "But we don't want anything that gives the opportunity to create space between the child and the seat," she adds, and that includes inserts. If your child hates his car seat and long rides are a nightmare, try making frequent stops instead.
If your little one really does need extra support, stick to whatever your car seat's manufacturer sells as an official addition to the model.
Keeping your child warm in a car seat during the winter can be a tricky proposition indeed, considering that most experts advise against buckling your baby in while she's wearing a jacket (which can interfere with the fit of the harness). But buckling her in sans outerwear and using a blanket over the straps can present problems, too, says Walker, particularly in a crash: If the car rolls over, a blanket can smother your child (and it might not be made of the same flame-resistant material as the car seat). If you're worried about transporting your baby from a building to the car, it's better to go with a car seat cover made specifically for your car seat (are you sensing a theme here?). And once the car is warm enough, you can remove it.
4Toys or Mirrors
We know, we know...kids get really, really bored in the car (which means they get really, really cranky). As such, you've probably considered adding a few dangling toys to hang from the handle or maybe a mirror that allows you and your lonesome rear-facing baby to make eye contact... but toys can be come projectiles in the event of a collision, unfortunately. As for mirrors?
"Get rid of mirrors," says Walker, for one simple reason: Parents should be keeping their eyes on the road!
5Skipping the Top Tether
Not every car seat comes with a top tether, as Walker explains (some rear-facing models in particular don't have them). But many seats do, and alarmingly, many parents don't bother to use them (one study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that only half of car seats were attached by the top tether and most parents assumed it wasn't a necessary measure to take). If your seat has a top tether, Walker says, by all means use it: This can significantly reduce your child's risk of being injured in a crash!
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