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Top 4 tips for installing car seats

3/15/2018 by Kimberly Lombard


Installing your child's car seat doesn't have to be an anxiety-filled task. Follow these four tips to tackle car-seat installation and feel confident that your child is riding safe and secure in your vehicle. 

Always follow manufacturer's instructions

The two most important resources for learning to correctly install a child's car seat are the vehicle owner's manual and the car-seat instructions. Before attempting to install a car seat, carefully review both of these documents to best protect your child from injury in the event of a crash. The "car-seat installation" section in your vehicle owner's manual will detail: 

  • Car-seat placement. Some vehicles don't allow car seats to be installed in certain seating positions, even the center position. 
  • How to secure the car seat using the vehicle's seat-belt system. 
  • How to locate and use the vehicle's Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children (LATCH) system. 
  • LATCH weight limits.
  • Airbag precautions.
  • Considerations for safely securing other passengers seated near the child safety seat. 

Your car-seat instructions will list detailed instructions for: 

  • Installing a car seat using the various methods allowed by the vehicle manufacturer. 
  • How to secure the child correctly in their car seat. 
  • Knowing the car-seat weight and height limits, and harness and LATCH system weight limits. 
  • Other characteristics and instructions for use, such as car-seat expiration, infant carrier handle positions for vehicle transport, adjusting for the correct angle, how to clean the seat, how to adjust a harness, use of lock-offs, and more. 

Obey state laws AND follow best practices

All states and territories in the United States have child passenger safety laws for infants and children, although they vary by state. Evidence shows that state laws do result in more children being buckled up, which is good, right? 

Many parents and caregivers assume the law represents the safest practices recommended by safety experts. However, the problem lies when laws are set with minimum requirements without following best practices. Best practices have been shown by research to produce the most effective results or the highest standard of protection. Best practice is the safest way to transport the child and is based on: 

  • Manufacturer's instructions
  • Child's age, weight, height
  • Child's developmental level

Under Minnesota Law, all children must be in a federally-approved, properly-secured car seat until they're eight years old or at least 57 inches tall. By these requirements, you could have a child who meets the age requirement, but is still too small to fit the adult seat-belt system. This could leave the child at risk for severe injury due to incorrect use and placement of the seat belt. Best practice keeps the child in a booster seat based on their size and level of development, rather than their age. A child who is eight years old, but shorter than 57 inches, should continue to use the booster seat until they can pass the 5 Step Test

Other best-practice recommendations: 

  • Children under age one and under 20 pounds should always ride in rear-facing car seats. Children ages one to three should ride in rear-facing car seats as long as possible and until they reach the upper height or weight limits according to the manufacturer's instructions. 
  • When a child reaches age four, if they still fit properly in their child car seat with a harness, they should keep using it 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. 
  • Car seats must be installed and used according to the manufacturer's instructions. 
  • Due to the force when an airbag deploys, children should not sit in the front seat until they're 13. 

Seat placement matters

For all children younger than 13, the back seat is the safest place for them to ride because they're better protected from head-on collisions. Also, children under 13 in a front seat with an active front passenger airbag are at a higher risk of severe injury or death due to the force when the airbag deploys. Airbags, in combination with seat-belts, are designed for adult protection. 

Familiarize yourself with the location of the airbags with the help of your vehicle owner's manual. You must check both the vehicle owner's manual and car-seat instructions to learn about precautions to take when installing car seats near airbags. Keep in mind that a rear-facing car seat should NEVER be placed in front of an active airbag. Learn more about protecting your kids from airbag injuries in this video. 

When considering the best location for your child's car seat, keep in mind the other passengers to ensure everyone is secured in a safe seating position. 

Need assistance? Contact an expert.

If you're having difficulty installing your child safety seat, have questions about car-seat placement in the vehicle or just want to make sure it's installed correctly, seek out a Child Passenger Safety Technician (CPST) to help you. The primary role of the CPST is to educate caregivers on the correct selection, installation and use of car seats, booster seats and seat belts. CPSTs are the ultimate resource people and provide education by appointment or at car-seat check-up events, health and safety fairs, community events, educational presentations and by answering questions in person, by phone or email. 

When working with a CPST: 

  • Be prepared to learn and be involved in the installation of your car seat. CPSTs are trained to teach you, not install the seat for you.
  • Many times pre-registration is required when setting up a car-seat inspection appointment. In some instances walk-ins may be an option.
  • Plan ahead! If you are an expectant parent, try to schedule an appointment one or two months before your baby’s due date. Many CPSTs and their agencies require appointments several weeks, sometimes even months, in advance.
  • Know your child’s weight and height, and bring your vehicle and child with you to the check (with the exception of unborn children).
  • Install the seat in your vehicle before your car seat check-up appointment. Use the car-seat instructions and vehicle owner’s manual to guide you.
  • Bring the instructions and owner’s manual with you to your appointment so the technician can be sure the car seat is appropriate for your child’s age/size/developmental level; ensure you’re using a proper position in the vehicle; and check to make sure the car seat is being used in a way that meets the manufacturer’s requirements and recommendations.
  • Expect a check to take 30-45 minutes, depending on any issues with compatibility of the seat and the car. It may take longer if you have more than one seat or vehicle being checked.
  • The technician will go through a series of questions about your current seat, making sure it’s appropriate for the child, not expired and hasn’t been recalled. You can expect them to document their findings on a checklist.
  • CPSTs also will discuss the next steps for each child, such as when to move to the next type of car seat, risks for bulky clothing, aftermarket products, safety in and around the vehicle, and other concerns you might have.
  • Caregivers make the final decisions for how their child rides in the vehicle.

For a list of upcoming car-seat clinics in Rochester, click here

Kimberly Lombard is a Certified Community Health Education Specialist at Mayo Clinic’s Level I Adult and Pediatric Trauma Center. She oversees the Injury Prevention Program and is certified as a child passenger safety technician/instructor.