Car Seat Installation 101 – A step-by-step guide to securing baby car seats

If you needed a degree to become a parent, Car Seat Installation 101 would be a required course. Unfortunately not enough parents are enrolling—according to some statistics, four out of five car seats on the road today are not properly installed. If you’ve ever wrangled with a car seat, you understand why. Here are some steps and helpful tips to build your car seat installation confidence and make the whole process a snap—or at least a little less of a wrestling match.

Before You Shop

With so many different types and models, confusing instruction manuals, and lots of straps and symbols, it’s no wonder parents have trouble getting a passing grade in car seat installation. The first thing to know about car seats is which type your child should use. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommend the following:

  • A child less than one year of age AND weighing less than 20 pounds should sit in a rear-facing child safety seat.
  • A child one year of age AND weighing more than 20 pounds can ride in a forward-facing car seat. (Keep in mind that you want your child to ride rear facing for as long as possible for maximum safety. Check your car seat manual for weight and height guidelines.)

More Pre-Shopping Advice

  • A child that has outgrown a car seat (typically at about 40 pounds) should move to a belt-positioning booster seat (until she is about 80 pounds and four feet, nine inches tall).
  • Children ages nine to 12 should remain sitting in the back seat using seat belts.

(See more age-by-age car seat tips here.)

Before you shop for a car seat, refer to the NHTSA’s Ease of Use Ratings guide to gain insight on the ease of installation and check out how helpful the instructions are for various models.

Read the Manuals

Speaking of instructions … read them! Every car seat and vehicle is unique. That’s why it’s imperative you read both the owner’s manual that came with the car seat you purchased, as well as the owner’s manual for your vehicle—look for the section on child safety seats—before you even think about strapping the car seat in.

It may not be as simple as ready, set, buckle, but the manuals provide essential installation information and can save you from a headache (and your child from serious injury!).

Have a Fitting Session

How you put your child in the car seat is as important as how you put the seat in the car. Before you wrestle the seat into the back, take a few minutes to adjust the car seat harness to fit your child. According to Gina Duchossois, trauma prevention coordinator and chair of the Safe Kids Southeastern Pennsylvania Program at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, the harness system will need to be adjusted, depending on the orientation of the seat in the vehicle.

“When the car seat is rear facing, the harness straps should come from at or below the height of the child’s shoulders. When forward facing, the harness should remain at or above the child’s shoulders,” she says.

Keep in mind that as your child grows and the weather demands bulkier clothing, you will need to adjust the straps on the car seat to get a snug fit. You can test to make sure the harness is tight enough using two methods. If you are able to pinch a portion of the harness near your baby’s shoulders between your fingers (the pinch test) then the harness is not tight enough. You should only be able to fit one finger between the baby and the harness at shoulder level (the finger test, shown at left) to know your baby is secure.

Pick the Right Seat

When selecting where to install the car seat in your vehicle, the center back seat is preferred according to Duchossois and Heather Watson, a certified child passenger safety technician and creator of You should never put your child in the front seat or install a car seat near an airbag.

But what if you are unable to install your child’s car seat in the middle back position? “Many parents love that coveted center back seating position because it’s the safest, but really, as long as the car seat is installed correctly and the harness is used properly, any car seat will do a terrific job of protecting a child in a crash,” Watson reassures.

Get the Right Angle

Use your noodle—pool noodle, that is—when it comes to getting the angle of the car seat just right. “If the rear-facing car seat isn’t at a 45 degree angle, there’s a risk the baby’s head will slump down onto his chest, and that can block off the airway,” says Watson. If the base of your car seat doesn’t have a built in angle adjustor, she recommends using a pool noodle to achieve the correct angle. (A rolled up towel can do the trick as well.)

Once your child moves to a forward-facing car seat, it should be positioned upright. Many car seats on the market today come equipped with a built-in angle indicator to let you know if you have installed the seat at the proper angle.

Seat Belts, Locking Clips, & Latches

When it comes time to buckle up, there are several ways to secure the car seat. “You can install a child safety seat with either LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) or the vehicle seat belt, never both at the same time,” says Duchossois.

If you are using the seat belt, be sure to feed it through the appropriate slot on the car seat. And Watson insists you know how your seat belts lock. “Sometimes there’s a tag on the seat belt that will tell you how to lock the seat belt on a car seat.”

In some older vehicles you may need to use a locking clip (an H-shaped metal clip that comes with your car seat) to lock the seat belt. And on all forward facing car seats, “Always use a top tether, always!” Watson says. “It reduces head excursion (how far forward the head comes out of the car seat in a crash). Do make sure to tether to an approved vehicle manufacturer’s tether anchor.” Again, check your manuals.

More on LATCH

The LATCH system was developed to make installation easier, but it often ends up confusing parents. The LATCH mechanism on your car seat includes a belt with hooks on the ends—used in place of the seat belt—and a top tether.

To use the LATCH system, thread the LATCH belt through the appropriate belt path and hook to the LATCH anchors on your vehicle. “These are found in the back seat bight (the crack between the bottom and back seat cushions), typically in outboard positions,” Watson explains. (You’ll definitely need to refer to the vehicle’s owner’s manual to see where LATCH anchors are located.)

LATCH anchors may not be available on the center seat in the back. “One of the biggest mistakes we see is the lower LATCH anchors used in the center back seating position when lower anchors aren’t available there; they’re borrowing the lower anchors from the outboard (side) seats,” says Watson.

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