5 tips for installing car seats
1/30/2023 by Nicole Guerton, M.S.
Installing your child's new car seat can seem hard — but it's easier than you think. Follow the tips below to help you feel confident that your child is riding safely and securely in your vehicle.
Always follow the manufacturer's instructions
The two most important resources for correctly installing a child's car seat are the car seat instructions and your vehicle's owner's manual. Before installing the car seat, be sure to review each of these to learn how to best protect your child from injury in the event of a crash. Be sure to have them available to refer to during the installation process.
In your vehicle's owner's manual, look for the "car seat installation" section. Here you will find detailed instructions on car seat placement, securing the car seat with the seat belt system, locating the vehicle's Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children (LATCH) system, LATCH weight limits, air bag precautions and safely securing other passengers near the child safety seat.
The car seat instruction manual will have detailed instructions on installing using the various methods allowed by your vehicle manufacturer, securing your child in the car seat correctly, car seat weight and height limits, and harness and LATCH system weight limits. You also will find instructions, such as car seat expiration, infant carrier handle positions for vehicle transport, adjusting for the correct angle, cleaning, how to adjust the harness, use of lock-offs and more.
Obey state laws
All states and territories in the U.S. have child passenger safety laws for infants and children. Many of these vary by state. Evidence shows that state laws do result in more children being buckled up.
Follow best practices
Research has shown that best practices produce the most effective results and highest standards of protection. And sometimes, these require more than the state law. The safest way to transport your child is based on:
- Manufacturer's instructions.
- Child's age, weight and height.
- Child's cognitive and physical developmental level.
Best practice recommendations include:
- Children under the age of 1 and under 20 pounds should always ride in rear-facing car seats.
- Children ages 1 to 3 should ride in rear-facing car seats as long as possible — and, until they reach the upper height or weight limits according to the car seat manufacturer's instructions.
- When a child reaches the age of 4, if they still fit properly in the car seat with a harness, they should keep using that car seat until they reach the seat's upper limit for height and weight.
- Children should ride in a booster seat until the adult lap and shoulder belt fits properly.
- Children should not sit in the front seat until they're 13 years old, due to the force when an air bag deploys.
Seat placement does matter
The safest place to ride for children younger than 13 is in the back seat. This is to protect them in head-on collisions. Additionally, front seats with an active front passenger air bag increases the risk of severe injury or death due to the force when the air bag deploys. Air bags, in combination with seat belts, are designed for adult protection. Be sure to familiarize yourself with the location of your vehicle's air bags. Keep in mind that rear-facing car seats should never be placed in front of an active air bag.
Need assistance? Contact an expert
If you have difficulty installing your child safety seat or have questions about placement in the vehicle, seek out a child passenger safety technician to help. The primary role of the technician is to educate on the correct selection, installation and use of car seats, booster seats and seat belts. Set up an appointment for one of our Car Seat Inspection Clinics, or watch for health and safety fairs or community events in your area.
When working with the technician:
- Be prepared to learn and be involved in the installation of your car seat.
- Plan ahead. If you are an expectant parent, schedule your appointment one to two months before your baby's due date.
- Know your child's height and weight and bring them along to the event.
- Try installing your car seat before arriving at the event. The technician can then review the installation and provide education as needed.
- Bring your car seat installation manual and vehicle owner's manual along. Your technician can review these to ensure you are using the proper position in the vehicle and that the car seat is appropriate for your child.
- Expect your meeting with the technician to take 30–45 minutes, depending on any issues with compatibility of the car seat and your car. It may take longer if you have more than one car seat or vehicle being checked.
- The technician will go through a series of questions about your current car seat to ensure it is appropriate for your child, is not expired and hasn't been recalled. Expect the technician to document his or her findings on a checklist. The technician also will discuss next steps, such as when to move to the next type of car seat, risks of bulky clothing, aftermarket products, safety in and around vehicles, and any other concerns you might have.
Nicole Guerton, M.S., is a master certified health education specialist at Mayo Clinic in Rochester's Level 1 Adult and Pediatric Trauma Center. She oversees the Injury and Prevention Programs, is certified as a child passenger safety technician and is a board-certified wellness coach.