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Officer Patrick Roth: I'm Officer Patrick Roth with the California Highway Patrol. I'm a certified child passenger safety instructor. I check car seats all the time, and I know that almost three out of four car seats are installed improperly. You're not alone if you feel intimidated, but don't worry. We're going to walk you through it.
Let's start by putting in the base. Set the base on your seat. You're going to check the angle. This particular seat comes with an angle adjustment. It has these two buttons here where you're going to adjust the angle. You're going to look and see on your angle indicator to make sure you're between 30 and 45 degrees.
We're going to use the vehicle's seat belt to put this in. You're going to run it through the seat belt path. All seats have an indicator where that seat belt path is. In this case, it's right through here. Take your latch and buckle it. Take the shoulder portion of the belt with one hand, and you push down with the other and pull tight. Take the belt then – in this case, it comes with a built-in lock off. We're going to take the vehicle's belt and we're going to lock it into here. Once that is done, you're going to check for tightness: 1 inch or less at the seat belt path. Now we know we have a tight fit. Double-check your angle indicator to make sure you're at 30 to 45 degrees.
If your vehicle was made after 2002, it is a requirement that it has a LATCH system. LATCH stands for "lower anchors and tethers for children." Each seat and vehicle comes with the system to use. In this case, they're stored in the back of the seat here. And we'll attach them to the seat. You're going to look for the lower anchors with the indicators right here. Take your buckle, reach it in here, and make sure that it clicks in. You're going to do that on both sides. This base has a strap right here that you'll use to tighten it. Same thing with the seat belt. Push down on the seat. Pull tight on the strap. Then you're going to check for tightness again: 1 inch or less at that belt path. That's a good, tight fit. We're going to double-check right here to make sure we're at 30 to 45 degrees.
Now let's put in the seat. Set the seat in there until you hear the click. These rear-facing-only seats are part of travel systems. They have a carrier handle here so that you can take the seat in and out. You can put the baby in while you're in the house. You can also put the seat in and then put the baby in while it's in the car. Let's put the baby in the seat.
Officer Patrick Roth: Who do we have here?
LaNiesha: It's Olivia.
Officer Patrick Roth: Hi, Olivia. She's very excited to be here. I can tell. How old is she?
LaNiesha: 6 weeks.
Officer Patrick Roth: Okay. I have three kids of my own, and I kind of remember the 6-week age. Let's put her in the car seat.
And now we're ready to put Olivia into the seat. Mom's going to sit her in there. You want to make sure her back is up against the back of the seat.
Now that Olivia's in the seat, we're going to get the harness on her, so you want to make sure that these harnesses come from at or below her shoulders. We'll put her arm right through there. Okay. Go ahead and buckle the buckle down here. Now most seats come with a strap in the front that tighten the harness, like this one here. We're going to tighten the strap and then, to check for tightness, we do what we call a "pinch test" where we're going to pinch the webbing. If you can pinch this together, it's still too loose. You'll need to do a little retightening. And when you can't pinch it, you know that it's tight.
Then lastly, we're going to take this retainer clip and we're going to slide it up right across her chest at armpit level. And that's it. Olivia is safe and ready to go. I know it can be a little tricky, but you'll get the hang of it. And there are resources in every state, and a child passenger safety technician can check your seat after you install it. It never hurts to have a second pair of eyes to double-check your seat.
You might think that anyone who can read an instruction manual and follow directions could install a car seat correctly. In reality, though, it's not so easy.
And according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), three out of four car seats are improperly installed.
Below are the most important factors when it comes to installing your car seat correctly and where to turn for help if you're confused. (Illustrations courtesy of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.)
Placement and orientation of the car seat
Car seats for young babies should be installed in the rear-facing position in the center of the rear seat (or the center row of a van or SUV with more than one backseat). Keep your child in a rear-facing car seat for as long as possible – until your child reaches the seat's maximum rear-facing height and weight limits, usually around age 4. (Read more about how to choose and use a car seat.)
Once your toddler outgrows the rear-facing capabilities of her car seat, she can ride facing forward in a five-point harness car seat. The middle of the backseat is still the safest place for her to sit.
When she exceeds the limits of the forward-facing car seat (usually 60 pounds or more), she may switch to a booster seat – intended for use with a shoulder and lap belt. For more information, see our article about how to choose and use a booster seat.
She should stay in the booster seat until the seat belt fits her correctly without a booster, usually when she is 4 feet 9 inches tall. Learn more about when kids can safely switch from a booster to seat belts.
Tips for installing your seat successfully
- Read your car seat and vehicle manuals to make sure you understand how to install the seat. If the information isn't clear, call the automaker, the safety seat manufacturer, or both. Or take a 30-minute workshop to make sure you get it right (see "Getting more help," below).
- Use the tether system if possible. All child safety seats and vehicles manufactured after 2002 must be compatible with the LATCH system, which stands for Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children. (Some cars manufactured between 1999 and 2002 also have the system.)
The LATCH system is designed to make installation of a car seat easier and safer by attaching the car seat directly to anchors permanently attached to the vehicle instead of using the seat belt to secure the seat. Although only front-facing infant and toddler car seats are required to have both the upper and lower attachments, all child safety seats with a five-point safety harness (including rear-facing infant car seats) are required to have the lower anchors.
- If you own a vehicle that doesn't have the anchoring system, consider having your car retrofitted. (Check with your local auto dealership for information on cost and feasibility.)
- If you're installing a forward-facing seat, make sure it's flat against the seat's bottom and back. Be sure to check the safety seat's instructions for the recommended angle of recline (this goes for rear-facing seats too). Use your hands to push down as hard as you can on the car seat – or better yet, place your knee on the car seat and push down with all your weight to squash the air out of the cushion underneath it.
- If you're installing a safety seat and not using LATCH, make sure the car's seat belt is threaded through the correct slots, and pull the belt as tight as possible so there's no slack. The car seat should move no more than an inch forward and backward or side-to-side on the belt path. Once you've buckled the belt, give it a yank to make sure it's locked.
- If your car is a pre-1996 model, chances are the lap and shoulder belts don't lock in place unless the car comes to a sudden stop. (To test them, see if you can move the car seat more than an inch to either side or toward the front of the car when the belts are buckled tightly.)
- If the seat moves, you'll need to secure it with a locking clip, a small metal device that looks like an oversized paper clip. The locking clip fits around the seat belt (about half an inch above the buckle) to hold the belt firmly in place.
- If you have an older car and your car seat didn't come with a locking clip or you've misplaced it, contact the manufacturer to order one or purchase one at a children's supply store.
- Check to make sure the seat is secure and resists side-to-side motion. If you can still tip the car seat forward or sideways more than an inch or so, unbuckle it and try again until you get a tight fit.
Using the installed car seat
- Be sure you know how the harness system works. You can tighten and loosen the straps around your baby with the harness adjustment lever.
- Adjust the harnesses to make them snug. If you can pinch any of the harness material between your fingers, it's too loose.
- If there's a plastic harness clip that rests across your baby's chest, keep it at armpit level to hold shoulder straps in place.
- The straps should always lie flat. Straighten them out if they become twisted.
- After you buckle your child in, tug on the straps to make sure they're secure.
- Place rolled-up cloth diapers, blankets, or towels around your newborn to keep her snug in the car seat. You can also purchase head, neck, and body supports to secure your baby.
- If your infant's head flops forward, make the seat more level by wedging a folded towel or other firm support under the front of it. If your car seat has a level indicator, use it to adjust the seat's recline (usually between 30 and 45 degrees) to keep your baby's head resting comfortably back.
Getting more help
Because so many parents have trouble getting their car seats installed properly, manufacturers and child safety experts recommend that new parents sign up for a car seat installation workshop. Such classes usually take about half an hour – a small investment of time for the peace of mind that comes with your baby's safety.
Where can you find one? The NHTSA has inspection stations with certified technicians who can inspect your car seat and teach you how to install it properly. The NHTSA's website lists child safety seat inspection stations by zip code so you can find help near you.
You can also find help online:
- NHTSA provides free ease-of-use rating information that can help you find a car seat that's simple to install and use.
- The American Academy of Pediatrics offers tips on its handy car safety seat checkup, or you can download its free app.
- SafetyBeltSafe U.S.A.'s website includes technical details about car seats, finding the best safety seat for your child, and installing car seats properly.