Child Safety Seats - Common Mistakes

Photograph of an infant in a child safety seat that has been installed incorrectly.

The photograph, above, illustrates three common and potentially life-threatening misuses.

This infant has not reached one year of age, yet she has wrongly been turned to face forward, exposing her to life-threatening crash forces should a collision occur.

The car's safety belt is threaded through the wrong belt path of the child safety seat (CSS), creating unnecessary slack and defeating the safety features of the CSS.

Finally, note the location of the locking clip, near the lower right-hand corner of the child seat; in this position, it cannot perform its intended function and could become a hazardous projectile should it dislodge during a crash.

Things to check:
  1. Does your car have a passenger-side air bag? An infant in a rear-facing child safety seat must NEVER be placed in front of an active airbag! Whenever possible, children should ride in the rear seat. If toddlers must ride in the front seat of a vehicle with a passenger-side airbag, the vehicle seat must be moved back as far as possible. It is extremely important to read your vehicle owner's manual and child or booster seat instructions carefully - these are two excellent source[s] of information regarding the safe transportation of your child in your vehicle.

  2. Is your infant or child facing the correct way for both his/her age and weight? The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly recommends that infants riding in automobiles be kept rear-facing until they are AT LEAST one year old AND weigh at least 20 pounds. Infants who reach 20 pounds before 1 year of age should ride rear-facing in a convertible seat or infant seat approved for higher weights until at least one year of age. If a child seat accommodates your child rear-facing to higher weights, the child should remain rear-facing until reaching the maximum weight for the child seat, as long as the top of the child's head is at least one inch below the top of the seat back.

  3. Is your infant/child in the appropriate seat for his/her size? Each child safety seat (CSS) is manufactured to accommodate children within specified weight and height guidelines. If your child is outside the manufacturer's recommended ranges for your particular seat, your child may not receive the greatest possible safety benefits from that seat. Know your child's exact weight and height, and check the CSS instruction booklet, to be sure the seat fits the child.

  4. Are the harness straps threaded through the correct slots in the back of the child safety seat? Generally, the shoulder straps should be threaded through the slots that fall at or just below shoulder level for children riding rear-facing, and the slots that fall at or just above shoulder level for children seated in a "forward-facing only" child seat. If the child is riding forward-facing in a convertible seat, use the topmost harness slots, UNLESS the manufacturer specifically allows another set of slots to be used. It is imperative that parents read the instruction booklet that comes with their child's safety seat, to make sure they're complying with all manufacturer's recommendations.

  5. Are the harness straps snug? They should lay flat against the child's body, and not permit the child's shoulders to come away from the shell of the car seat. The harness retainer clip, which holds the two harness straps together, should be placed at armpit level, to keep the shoulder straps on the shoulders.

  6. Is the vehicle's safety belt pulled tightly enough to hold the child safety seat in place?" To test for child seat "tightness":

    • Grasp the child seat on either side, at the point where the vehicle safety belt is threaded through the belt path.
    • Tug the child seat firmly away from the car seat, then tug it from side to side.

    If the child seat moves more than one inch away from the car seat or more than one inch from side to side, the safety belt is not tight enough.

    To tighten a child safety seat in place, compress the child seat into the car seat, by placing your knee in the child seat and leaning into it with your body weight, while pulling hard on the loose end of the vehicle seat belt at the same time. (This technique works better if you use a partner!)