Installing and using a car seat might seem straightforward, but it’s very easy to make mistakes. In fact, inspection surveys show that more than 75% of car seats are not installed correctly. Car seat safety also depends on securing your child in the seat the right way every time.  Here are nine of the most common car seat mistakes people make. Avoid these to make sure your little ones are always safe when you take to the road.

1. Leaving Car Seat Too Loose.

If you have a pro install your car seat, you’ll often see them put their entire weight on it when securing it. You should not be able to move the seat at all once it is in place, whether you’re using the vehicle’s seat belts or the LATCH system. There should be zero slack in the safety belts securing the seat to your vehicle.

2. Not Understanding LATCH Use.

Most cars manufactured after September 2002 have the LATCH system, which stands for Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children. The system includes metal bars near the base of the seat and a tether anchor. The intent is to make car seat installation easier for seats designed for this system.  Note that you should use LATCH or your vehicle’s seat belts, but not both!

3. Not Locking the Shoulder Belt.

Have you noticed how your seat belt locks in place when you slam on the brakes? This is due to emergency locking retractors that automatically engage during a sudden stop. If you secure the car seat using the vehicle’s belts, you should engage these locks in the shoulder belts manually during installation. To do this, pull the shoulder belt all the way out, then slowly retract it. You will hear a ratcheting sound and the belt will resist if you pull on it. Continue to slowly retract until you have secured the seat as tightly as possible.

4. Reclining the Seat at the Wrong Angle.

For both comfort and safety, it is important to adjust rear-facing car seats to the correct angle.  Most have built-in angle indicators to ensure that newborns ride at close to 45 degrees, for example. This ensures good neck support and allows them to breathe comfortably.  Always check and adjust the seat angle according to manufacturer recommendations.

5. Turning the Seat Too Early.

The American Academy of Pediatrics says that toddlers are five times safer in rear-facing car seats. They recommend you keep them that way until at least age two and longer is even better!  Many rear-facing convertible seats have weight limits of 30-45 pounds. It is perfectly safe, even if their feet touch the back seat.

6. Adjusting the Harness and Clip Incorrectly.

man buckling a child into a car seat

Adjust the harness clip over the child’s chest so that it keeps the shoulder straps in place.

It is critical to position the harness properly so that it protects your child. Some of the most common mistakes include:

  • Leaving the harness straps too loose. Once you fasten your child into the seat, give the straps the pinch test. You should be able to slide a finger under the strap, but not pinch the fabric between your fingers.
  • Putting the harness clip too low.  This clip should be at chest level by the child’s armpits. It is designed to keep the shoulder straps in the proper position in case of a crash.
  • Threading the harness straps through the wrong slots.  For rear facing, the straps should be threaded below the child’s shoulders. For forward facing, they should be above the child’s shoulders.

7. Putting the Child in the Wrong-Sized Seat.

Always choose a car seat based on your child’s size, not their age. Infant seats, convertible car seats, and booster seats have different height and weight ranges. This is in part because infants and children have different safety needs.  Seat safety features also have different weight thresholds. If your child is in a seat that is too large or small for them, they may be injured during a crash. Check the limits carefully and have a new seat on standby if your child is getting close to the limit.  

8. Using an Expired, Recalled, or Used Seat.

The safety industry is constantly developing new technologies.  Safety standards evolve to meet these advances and keep your little ones as safe as possible.  This is one of the big reasons that car seats have expiration dates.

The seats and their safety features also wear out with use. You should always follow the manufacturer’s recommendations regarding seat expiration and be sure to register the seat so you will receive information about any recalls.  If there has been a recall on your seat, stop using it immediately until it has been repaired or replace it.

Using car seats for multiple children in the same family is generally safe as long as it does not become worn or pass its expiration.  You should never buy a second-hand car seat for which you do not know the history, however. Car seats that have been in crashes are no longer considered safe, for example.  Most insurance companies will cover seat replacement after a crash.

9. Dressing Child in a Bulky Coat.

Bulky coats or clothing compress during impact leaving the harness loose around the child.  This could allow them to slip out, resulting in injury. They might also overheat once the car warms up.  Instead, it’s best to dress your child as though they’ll be indoors. Then, either warm up the car before putting them inside or cover them with a blanket once they’re safely in the harness.

Need Help with Car Seat Installation?

Contact the Maryland KISS (Kids in Safety Seats) program to find out where car seat inspections are available in your area.  You can check for other local help through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration website.