To keep them as squeaky clean and germ-free as possible, you wash your child's clothes, sanitize their toys, scrub their hair, and brush their teeth, but what about their car seat? How often should you wash a car seat? Sure, your child probably sits in it nearly every day, but is their car seat really that dirty? (Inward grimace because you have seen that car seat when you go to put your baby in it and thought, I need to clean that.)
The simple answer here is that you should wash a car seat when it's dirty, but the exact timing of cleanings depends on how much the car seat is used, whether or not your child is eating and drinking in the seat, or if they've had an accident.
"If the child keeps it clean, you never have to wash it," Alisa Baer, M.D., a pediatrician and co-founder of The Car Seat Lady tells Romper. "If it gets soiled, then you’ll need to consider washing it and what you’ll need to do depends on how it’s soiled."
If your child eats crumbly foods, spills a drink, has a potty training accident, or even has a bout of motion sickness, cleaning their car seat absolutely needs to happen, but an ounce of prevention can go a long way to avoid major cleanings.
"If parents don't allow food in the car, stick a diaper or Pull-Up on a child that is being potty trained and make sure to use a safe poncho on children that get motion sick (one that goes over the child after the child is properly buckled and straps are snug) — the car seat really shouldn't get all that dirty, and it's not necessary to wash it frequently," Chana Lightstone, a nationally certified child passenger safety instructor with The Safest Seat, tells Romper.
Food is one thing that can easily soil a car seat, and it can interfere with the safety features of a car seat if not properly cleaned. Baer explains that parents should be especially cautious with crumbly or melty foods like granola, cereal, or chocolate that can get into the locking mechanism for the harness straps or the tail that is being used to tighten the straps. "Those little particles of food can actually make it to where the locking mechanism does not grip properly and the straps slip," she says.
To clean the straps of food debris, Baer recommends using a dry toothbrush (or, if you need longer bristles, a vegetable or baby bottle brush would work) to brush crumbs or dried-on food mess away. "Straps are not a flat surface. If you look closely at them, it's a material that's woven together," Baer says. "So, I've found that soft bristled brushes like a toothbrush work very well to get the yuck that accumulates in those out."
For messes that are especially stuck on car seat straps or may have the tendency to get smelly (think urine, vomit, or milk), a good dry brushing might not do the trick. "You'll need to check with the manufacturer of your child's specific car seat to see what they allow and what they don't allow," she says.
Baer says that some manufacturers will allow their straps to be removed and soaked in water for cleaning, but some don't. Additionally, Baer explains that some car seat manufacturers have replacement straps that parents can purchase when messes just won't budge. They may not sell them directly on their website, but if you call the customer service line for your child's seat manufacturer, they may be able to assist you in purchasing replacement straps.
Vacuum cleaners are also very helpful for getting under the fabric cover where there are lots of nooks and crannies where anything that falls through can get into the crevices of the seat. Baer explains that a flathead screwdriver with a rag on the end will often help fish out stuck on mess as well.
"One other place parents want to make sure stays clean is the buckle itself," Baer tells Romper. If food gets into that area, it won’t work properly. Again, your child's car seat manufacturer will have specific instructions regarding the dos and don'ts of buckle cleaning — and some don't have removable buckles — so Baer explains that checking this is key. Just make sure that any cleaning done around the buckle dries completely so that the prongs of the buckle do not rust.
"I think when a parent gets a seat, knowing what parts are and are not cleanable is going to be really important," Baer says. Find out in the beginning if your straps are removed or replaceable, if your buckle can be washed, and whether or not you can remove the fabric cover to wash. Baer also recommends taking photos or video of your seat before and as you take it apart in order to know how it should be put back together after it is cleaned.
"The most important tip for washing car seats is to read the manual and follow manufacturer instructions carefully. I like to tell parents that a car seat is not just another piece of baby gear. It's a potentially life-saving device," Lightstone explains. "If they use a stroller until it's on its last wheel, that's their prerogative, but a car seat will only perform under the brutal conditions of a collision if it's cared for properly."
In addition to being careful with what foods a child may or may not drip and crumble all over their car seat, bodily fluids are another huge risk-factor when it comes to keeping car seats clean. Keeping a long bib handy for kids who are prone to motion sickness or a Pull-Up on a potty training child can help prevent unwanted accidents.
"My word to parents here is just exercise caution because the things —the bodily fluids and the food, dairy especially — can leave a lasting odor in your car that can make car rides deeply unpleasant," Baer says. "The majority of car seats, you're going to need to uninstall them to clean them, and so that in and of itself is never anyone's idea of fun."
Alisa Baer, M.D., pediatrician and co-founder of The Car Seat Lady
Chana Lightstone, nationally certified child passenger safety instructor with The Safest Seat