Your Car Seat Questions Answered




Dr. Laura Jana, a pediatrician, mom, and certified child passenger safety technician, works to help parents like you learn how to use car seats safely. She was nice enough to sit down and answer reader questions about how to properly use car seats. Read her expert advice below:

How long should a child remain rear facing?

While parents are often tempted to turn their children forward facing as soon as they reach the bare minimum age or size, the reality is that children are safest remaining rear facing for as long as possible within the height and weight and limits of their seats. Because of this, the American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends you keep your toddler in a rear-facing seat until the maximum height and weight is met, or until they reach at least two years of age.

How tight should the harness straps be?

Harness straps are what keep children safely protected in their seats, and therefore need to be relatively snug. When harness straps are tight enough, you shouldn’t be able to: 1) Fit more than a finger between the child’s shoulder and the harness, or 2) pinch any slack of the harness strap with the thumb and the index finder.

For anyone who wants additional confirmation that a car seat’s harness straps are appropriately snug, some new car seats now provide features that offer this reassurance.

Where can I have my car seat inspected?

Because an estimated 80 percent (or more) of car seats are installed incorrectly, parents should take the proper precautions to help ensure that they install their child’s seat appropriately.  If you plan on installing your car seat yourself make sure you read the car seat manual, your vehicle manual, and visit the car seat manufacturer’s Web site, where it will often have demos to help you with installation. Then, have your seat checked by a certified child passenger safety technician. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) Web site lists child safety seat inspection stations and trained technicians by ZIP code.

When can my child be in a regular seatbelt without a booster?

Parents should never rush to move a child into the vehicle’s seat belt alone. It’s important to be aware that booster seat laws-which vary by state-represent the bare minimum for keeping children in belt-positioning booster seats. A child is ready to move out of a booster when she can sit all the way back on the vehicle’s seat with the shoulder belt crossing over her shoulder - instead of across her neck - and with the lap belt sitting low across her hips. Her knees should also bend comfortably over the edge of the seat. This usually happens when a child is 4 feet 9 inches tall and somewhere between eight to 12 years old.

Are combination systems with strollers and car seats any good?

I find that combination-or travel-systems are quite practical for busy moms and dads who want to bring the safety of their infant car seat with them while on the move. For instance, a travel system helps parents easily navigate the airport with both a stroller and car seat in tow, or remove a sleeping child from the car. When choosing a travel system the first priority should still be finding an infant car seat that offers the best protection in the event of a crash, with higher rear-facing height and weight limits, advanced side impact protection and features to minimize movement in frontal crashes. Then parents can look for a system that also makes travel convenient-features like a one-hand fold for the stroller as well as storage compartments and trays.

What is LATCH?  Is it safer?  How can I tell if my car has it?

All passenger vehicles and child seats manufactured after Sept. 1, 2002, are required to have special anchors for attaching car seats directly to the vehicle, rather than having to use the vehicle’s seat belt to secure them. This alternative system is called LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children). When used correctly, both the vehicle’s seat belt and the LATCH system are equally safe, and the one that provides the best fit should be used. That said, parents should always follow their vehicle manufacturer’s instructions to know which seating position(s) in the vehicle are designed for use with the LATCH system, since not all are, and make sure to follow the car seat manufacturer’s instructions regarding proper installation. Some manufacturers, such as Britax, offer easy-to-use push-button LATCH connectors to help parents achieve a quick, simple and tight installation.

Can my child wear a winter coat in his/her carseat?

While winter coats keep your children warm, they’re also heavily padded. As a result, coats add slack when they come between a child and her harness straps or seat belt - limiting how snugly children can be secured in their seats. Parents can prevent this added slack by waiting until after their child is safely secured in her car seat before covering her with a coat. They can also put their child’s coat on backwards over the top of the appropriately snug harness straps.

About Dr. Laura
Jana Laura Jana, M.D., is a pediatrician, safety advocate and mother of three. She is also a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Section on Injury, Violence and Poison Prevention and the co-author of “Heading Home with Your Newborn; From Birth to Reality.” As a certified child passenger safety technician, Dr. Jana has worked to help parents learn to use child seats consistently and properly. Recently, she has focused her attention on raising awareness of the danger of side impact crashes.