Coat or no? Car seat safety during the cold winter months

Written by: Jessica Choi

Winter car seat safety

We sure know how to bundle up in the Midwest. We don’t let winter stop us from living life and enjoying the parks, zoos and fun outdoor activities. But it’s a lot of work to get all that winter gear on, and then there's that “no coats in car seats” rule. Madness! As a child passenger safety instructor at Lurie Children's Hospital (and a mom), I have some practical tips on how you can buckle in your kids safely and quickly during our never-ending winters.

Why can’t my kid wear a coat in their car seat?  
Let’s start out with a refresher of how to buckle up safely. Kids should always be buckled into their car seat snugly. To check this, use the pinch test—once your child is buckled up, try to pinch some harness webbing between your finger and thumb near your child’s shoulder. If you can pinch some slack, the harness needs to be tightened until your fingers slide right off and you can’t pinch any extra webbing. Once kids are snug enough, pull the chest clip up to armpit level. Kids need to be snug because the harness will stretch during a crash. This stretching keeps our bodies from stopping too quickly. 

When a child wears anything bulky in the car, it creates too much space between their body and the car seat harness. If a crash happens, a child who is wearing a coat or snowsuit isn’t buckled in snugly enough to begin with, so when the harness stretches, that child can pop out of the car seat harness.  Even if they don’t come out completely, their little body is subjected to too much movement and they are more likely to have head contact with the interior of the car or with another passenger.

Sometimes parents try to solve this coat problem by pulling the car seat harness even tighter and squishing the coat material down.  This doesn’t totally compress all the bulk though, and it can create a few other problems, too. We don’t want to overheat our babies and increase their risk of SIDS. Pulling the harness tighter when a child has a coat can also squish the coat material closer to their face, creating a suffocation risk for babies and young kids.  

Then how can I keep my kids from freezing during a polar vortex?
There are lots of ways to keep kids warm in the car, but only one way to keep them safe in the car. And kids don’t freeze to death in the short time it takes to get out to the car, buckle up and start driving. The warm air will be blowing through those vents in a matter of minutes.

Here’s what my family does on those bone-chilling days:

  • Start the car to warm it up, but not in a garage (carbon monoxide!) Actually, I’m lying. I’m always running late, so I don’t have time to warm the car up. I totally skip this step.
  • Put on coats and hats, then run out to the car.  
  • Get in and start the car. Yank those coats off and get buckled up.  
  • Now here’s the best part—you can put those coats back on! Toddlers and older kids can put their coats on backward, over the car seat harness or seat belt.* The hood will end up on the front of their body when you do this. Now the bulky material isn’t between your child’s body and their harness or seat belt. If they start to overheat, it’s easier to remove. But this isn’t safe for babies, because the coat and hood could create a suffocation hazard.  So…
  • Dress baby in thin layers. Once baby is buckled in, tuck a blanket around baby’s torso and under their arms so they can’t accidentally flip it up on their face and create a suffocation risk. Thin layers and blankets are okay for big kids, too. If you have an infant seat, bring the seat in overnight so it’s not cold when you go out to the car. Once you switch to a convertible seat, it isn’t practical to bring it inside, obviously.    

*This is advice for toddlers and big kids who have good head and neck control and who don’t have any special needs that could compromise their airway safety. Always listen to your pediatrician about your child’s individual needs and safety.

Jess Choi is a child passenger safety instructor at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago. She enjoys talking about injury prevention for hours on end, so she isn’t a great party guest. She has been in this field for almost a decade and loves to help families keep their kids safe. She lives in Chicago with her family.

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Posted on December 10, 2019 at 11:10 AM