Becoming a parent is one of the great joys in life. It can also be a bit overwhelming. First-time moms and dads may wish their sweet little bundle came with an instruction manual, and that someone would put in perspective all of the friendly advice they receive.
Parenting takes a good deal of trial and error. The good news is your baby will eventually sleep through the night (hopefully sooner than later), and that bottle warmer isn’t as complicated as it may initially seem. When it comes to car seat safety, however, experts say playing the guessing game can be dangerous, and even deadly.
- Road injuries are the leading cause of preventable deaths and injuries to children in the United States.
- Correctly used child safety seats can reduce the risk of death by as much as 71 percent.
- More than half of car seats are not used or installed correctly.
“There’s a wide range of misuse, from having the chest clip too low when it should be at armpit level or not having the belt tight enough to installing the car seat incorrectly,” explains Jenny Martin, a child passenger safety technician and instructor at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Plano.
Fortunately for North Texas parents, Texas Health hosts car seat safety and fitting demonstrations on a regular basis to teach parents how to install and use their specific seats and how to buckle their kids in safely and properly. Once they are shown the ropes, mom and dad get to show off their new skills by duplicating the correct process.
Martin says she learned firsthand the importance of car seat safety with her own children. “I can look back at things I did with my now teenager and his car seat and admit I was doing it wrong, simply because I just didn’t know better. By the time we had my daughter two years later, I had become a technician and knew what to do. Fortunately, when we were in an accident with her, the car seat did its job and she walked away with no injuries.”
The best way to keep your child safe in the car is to use the right car seat in the right way. Martin offers her top 10 safety tips and reminders to help protect your most precious cargo.
- Car seat manuals and car manuals are a must-read for parents so you can verify the proper way to install the seat for your specific vehicle. Most first-time parents put the car seat in the center of the back seat and use the outer seat anchors, which is incorrect. Your car manual will state where the LATCH system is and how to use it.
- Another big no-no is leaving the harness too loose on a child because you’re worried about hurting them. If the harness isn’t snug, it’s not going to provide support in an accident and the child could be injured.
- You can walk through baby stores and see all kinds of fun items, like frilly seat covers, toys, head supports and strap covers. Those products aren’t crash-tested, so if they aren’t made by the car seat manufacturer, they shouldn’t be used in the car. If you wish to provide your child with a toy or two to keep them occupied, choose toys that are soft and will not hurt your child in a crash.
- Remove bulk before buckling. During colder months, parents often loosen harnesses to fit a child wearing a bulky coat. If you’re in an accident, a puffy jacket will flatten against the weight of the body into the seat and harness, making the harness too loose to protect the child. Stick to sweatshirt material or thinner — if you have to loosen the harness, it’s too thick. If it’s really cold outside, warm up your car before you leave or take your child’s coat off when you get to the car and put it over the outside of the harness so it acts like a blanket.
- Keep your child in the rear-facing position for as long as possible, two years at the minimum. Research has shown that the head makes up the largest part of a child’s body mass until the age of 2, so their skeletal development hasn’t leveled out yet. If a 1-year-old, 20-pound baby is facing forward in a crash, their head isn’t supported, which can cause whiplash and severe head and neck injuries. The car seat cradles their head, neck and body so much better in the rear-facing position, so it’s the recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics and Safe Kids Worldwide to keep them there at least until age 2.
- Parents may worry about their kids being too tall or uncomfortable if they sit in the rear-facing position too long, or they are concerned about leg injuries in case of a crash. The rate of serious head and neck injuries in forward-facing children between the ages of 1 and 2 is the greater concern. It’s most important for kids to be safe.
- Center is safest. A study by the National Institutes of Health has shown that the center rear seat is 43 percent safer than the side for children because it doesn’t allow a direct impact in the event of an accident. The oldest child is typically the least protected (rear-facing is safer than front-facing), so if possible place your oldest child in the middle of the back seat.
- It can be difficult to know when to move a child from one seat up to another. There is often overlap with a child’s age, height or weight, so look on the car seat label to make sure your child is still within the limits for their seat. Rear-facing infant seats are the safest, followed by five-point harnesses, boosters and then the regular seat belt. Safe Kids Worldwide provides recommendations about when to move a child into a new seat.
- The fancy, expensive car seats aren’t always the safest. The truth is all car seat manufacturers have to meet or exceed federal motor vehicle and crash-testing standards, so the extra money you spend really just gives you more fancy features.
- Never buy a used car seat from someone you don’t know and trust. You won’t know the car seat’s history and if it’s ever been in an accident. In addition, you may not know if there’s been a recall and if the recall has been fixed.