Car seats are indispensable safety tools for all children, beginning from birth. When picking a car seat, it’s best to find a new one that adheres to the always-evolving safety codes and install your child’s car seat according to the manufacturer’s directions. Some vehicles also have specific requirements for where the car seat can be installed. In general, it’s best to install your baby’s car seat in the middle to avoid side-impact air bags.
In 2002, all passenger vehicles and car seats manufactured in the United States were required to have special anchors, known as LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) for attaching the child seat directly to the vehicle rather using the vehicle’s seat belt. But even if your vehicle is equipped with LATCH, you can still secure the child seat using the vehicle seat belt system since parents are not required to use LATCH.
Rear-facing car seat
Rear-facing car seats are positioned with the baby facing the rear of the vehicle. There are 3 types: rear-facing only seats, convertible seats, and 3-in-1 seats.
When using a rear-facing seat, the harness should be positioned at or below your baby’s shoulders. Make sure the harness is snug and that the harness clip is placed at the mid-chest level. Ensure that the car seat is installed tightly in the vehicle. If you can move the seat at the belt path more than 1 inch side-to-side or front to back, it’s not tight enough.
Never place a rear-facing car seat in the front seat of a vehicle that has an active front passenger air bag. This could cause serious injury or death in the event of a crash that inflates the air bag.
If you are using a convertible or 3-in-1 seat in the rear-facing position, make sure the seat belt or LATCH belt is routed through the correct belt path. Check the instructions that came with the car seat to be sure.
Finally, make sure the seat is at the correct angle so your infant’s head does not fall forward. Many seats have angle indicators or adjusters to ensure the right angle. If your seat does not have an angle adjuster, tilt the car seat back by putting a rolled towel or other firm padding (such as a pool noodle) under the base near the point where the back and bottom of the vehicle seat meet.
Forward-facing car seats
There are five types of forward-facing car seats: convertible seats (seats that convert from rear-facing to forward-facing seats including 3-in-1 seats), forward-facing only, combination seats with harness, built-in seats, and travel vests.
To switch a convertible or 3-in-1 seat from rear-facing to forward-facing, move the shoulder straps to the slots that are at or above your child’s shoulders. On some convertible seats, the top harness slots must be used when facing forward. Check the instructions that came with the seat for a detailed reference. You may have to adjust the recline angle of the seat. If you’re using a seat belt to secure the car seat, make sure the seat belt runs through the forward-facing belt path. If using the LATCH system, follow car seat and vehicle owner’s manual instructions.
Use a tether — a strap that attaches to the top of a car seat and stabilizes the seat by connecting to an anchor point in your vehicle — if possible. Tethers give extra protection by keeping the car seat and the child’s head from moving too far forward in a crash or sudden stop.
If you need installation help
If you have questions or need help installing your car seat, find a certified CPS (Child Passenger Safety) technician. Lists of certified CPS technicians and child seat fitting stations are available from the following websites (many provide information in Spanish):
- Safe Kids USA: 877-366-8154
- National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: NHTSA Vehicle Safety Hotline at 888-327-4236
- SeatCheck: 866-732-8243
- A car seat should be installed using either LATCH or the vehicle seat belt system. Don’t use both systems at the same time.
- The car seat should not move more than 1 inch front to back or side-to-side at the belt path.
- The harness straps should be threaded through the slots at or below the child’s shoulders on a rear-facing car seat or at or above the child’s shoulders in a forward-facing car seat.
- The harness should be comfortable for your child but tight enough so that the straps cannot be pinched between your fingers.