Your Car Seat Safety Questions - Answered!
Written by: Dev Gowda
Did you know that more than 73% of car seats are not used or installed correctly? In an effort to reduce misuse and confusion, Kids in Danger (KID) has compiled some of the most common questions we get about car seat use and installation and asked Jess Choi, Coalition Coordinator for Safe Kids Chicago for an expert’s answers.
Question: How do I know if my car seat is safe to use with my child?
Answer: The first step in using a car seat safely is to make sure it has not been recalled. At NHTSA.GOV (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) you can search for car seat recalls by brand name and model. Once you enter this information, you will be provided any recalls, product investigations, complaints and service bulletins that are associated with your seat. If your product has been recalled, follow the instructions provided under the recall tab. For all other child product recalls, visit CPSC.GOV and select recalls.
To continue to stay safe on the go, sign up for child seat recall updates through NHTSA’s recall notification system. If you select Child Restraints, NHTSA will email you every time a child seat is recalled. The website also has a child seat inspection station locator where you can locate installation experts by location.
Also, be sure to follow NHTSA’s 4 Steps to Child Passenger Safety to make sure your child is using the correct restraint.
Question: Why do car seats expire?
Answer: Car seats are made of plastic and Styrofoam. Both of these materials degrade over time, but when they are placed in a car, they break down even faster. Our cars are exposed to very hot and very cold temps, so the plastic on the car seat is expanding and shrinking during those temperature changes. After 6 years, you should replace your car seat unless the manufacturer says otherwise. An expired seat probably won't keep your child safe, because it could break apart during a crash.
Question: Does it matter what direction the car seat is facing?
Answer: Yes, very much! Babies should be rear-facing until they are at least 2 years old, but even longer is better. Babies and toddlers have bigger heads in proportion to their bodies than older kids do, and their necks aren't as strong and fully developed as older kids.
First, select the right seat for your child based on their age and size. Babies and toddlers can use a rear-facing only infant seat, or they can use a convertible seat (just make sure to check the height and weight requirements to see if your child fits). A convertible seat is one that can be used rear-facing and forward- facing. Keep your child rear-facing until they reach the upper height and weight limits of their convertible seat.
When they outgrow the rear-facing position, it's time to turn them forward (but not before age 2). Once your child is forward-facing, make sure to use the top tether strap, in addition to the seat belt or lower anchors when you install the seat.
Question: Is the car seat a safe place for a baby to sleep if there is no other sleeping environment available (crib, play yard, etc)?
Answer: No, car seats aren't a safe place for baby to sleep. Car seats are at an exact angle when they are properly installed in a vehicle, but they don't stay at that angle when you bring the car seat inside. Because of this, baby's airway might not stay open when you bring the seat inside. Remember that the safest place for a baby to sleep is in a bare crib that meets the current safety standards.
If you have your hands full when you come in, place baby's car seat on the floor while you put your bags down. Remember never to place the car seat on the couch or on a bed or crib-- the car seat can tip over, and baby's face can be pressed into the soft mattress or couch.
Question: How do I know if my car seat is properly installed?
Answer: First, take the time to read the manual that came with your seat, and then look through your vehicle manual in the child safety seat section. Follow the directions and make sure your child's seat is installed nice and tight, it shouldn't move more than 1 inch at the belt path. Make sure your child's seat is installed at the correct angle, based on the instructions. Rear-facing babies need to be at a 30-45 degree angle, and this differs with each seat. This angle is really important for newborns and young infants, because it keeps their airway open. Forward-facing kids usually need to travel in an upright position, but some seats allow a semi-reclined position as well. Each seat is different, so always read the manual.
Another great way to make sure your child's seat is installed correctly is to find a child passenger safety technician to take a second look for you. They will help educate you on your child's seat, and show you how to use it correctly. One of the reasons car seats are so hard to install correctly is because of the many variations of car interiors and restraint systems, so having it installed by a technician is the best way to go.
To find a CPST, please go to Cert.Safekids.org, then scroll down to Get Your Car Seat Checked. Click on Find a Tech, and then you can enter your city and state. Please contact any of the individuals or organizations on that list. You can always call or email Jess at Safe Kids Chicago or call her at 312-227-6696 if you are having any trouble finding someone near you. We'll do our best to help connect you!