5 Things You Probably Don't Know About Car Seats

Lisa D. Ellis
Oct. 10, 2014

Experts drive home the importance of educating yourself with car seat facts that will help keep your smallest passengers safe.

According to the experts, when it comes to car seat safety, it's what you don't know that can put children at risk. That's why it's important to increase your car seat IQ, whether you're a parent or a babysitter or nanny.

Traffic accidents are a leading cause of children's injuries and death in the United States, explains Nicole Vesely, Safe Kids Madison Area Coordinator at the American Family Children's Hospital. But using a properly installed, age-appropriate car seat can provide very important protection if an impact should occur.

Proper car seat installation and usage is just one of the many car seat safety issues that parents and caregivers face. Read on for some lesser-known car seat facts and issues, along with tips from the experts on the best practices to keep your little ones safe.

Fact #1: Your Child's Winter Wardrobe Can Make the Car Seat Unsafe
Shannon Roberts, a nursing student, says that this was one of the most surprising things she learned during her maternity rotation. If a child has on a heavy winter jacket or snowsuit in the car seat, the bulky fabric will prevent the car seat straps from sitting tightly against his or her body. In the event of impact, the extra slack will mean that the child isn't completely contained.

To prevent this problem, Vesely suggests buckling a child in wearing a thinner jacket or fleece, or just indoor clothes. "Add a blanket over your child after properly placing him/her in the harness straps," she adds.

Fact #2: All Car Seats Have an Expiration Date
You may never have noticed, but there's a sticker somewhere on the car seat that tells you how long the item is appropriate for use, according to Sorayah Kubba-Stepp, a child passenger safety technician affiliated with an informational website called Car Seats for The Littles. While your car seat won't "go bad" in the same way food and drinks do, the reality is that the plastic wears down over the years and it can get to the point where it's no longer safe. In addition, after some time the replacement parts may not be available, so you may not be able to maintain an older seat.

If the seat you're using is close to the end of its "shelf life," explore the array of newer choices on the market. Improvements in technology and testing practices mean that the latest crop of car seats may be easier to use and also safer than your older model. If there's no date on your seat, Vesely says that the rule of thumb is to stop using it six years after the manufacturing date.

Fact #3: Your Child May Be Smarter Than the Car Seat
You know how you struggle to open or close the car seat buckle? Ironically, many young children seem to be able to manage it with ease, which means that they can release themselves while the car is in motion. Michele Brunelle, a mother of three, says she faces this challenge with her two-year-old son on a regular basis. "Ben has been able to undo his top straps for awhile! I turn around and he is basically unbelted." This makes it hard her to keep him safe and secure while she's focusing on the road.

Heathyr Kemp, another child passenger safety technician with Car Seats for The Littles, offers an easy way to address this danger. Until a child is old enough to understand the risk, she suggests buttoning a shirt over the car seat buckle, so the child can't undo the restraint.

Fact #4: A Used Car Seat May Not Be Safe
If you're considering buying a pre-owned car seat or accepting a hand-me-down, you may want to think again. If the car seat has ever been in a crash, it's no longer safe. In addition, older car seats may have manufacturer recalls. (Check this list of recalls from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.) Or if the old owners didn't care for the car seat properly, it could compromise its effectiveness.

With so many variables involved, Kemp says to always make sure to know the history of any car seat you plan to use. When it doubt, skip the used seats and go for new ones.

Fact #5: Leaving Your Child Unattended in a Car Seat Is Dangerous
When your little ones fall asleep in the car seat, it's tempting to let them stay there until they wake up. But Drago points out that this is never a good idea -- in fact, it can be deadly in some cases. "Unattended children have slipped partially out of car seats and been strangled on the restraint straps," she says. In addition, leaving your child in the car even for a few minutes can be a mistake; the temperature inside can heat up or cool down quickly and put your child at extreme risk of illness or even death.

The best and safest approach is to always take your child out of the car seat when you arrive at your destination.

While using these safe car seat practices is important for your children's safety, it's also essential that you (and all of your children’s sitters) make an effort to practice what you preach. "Adults should always wear their seat belt as well, not only to protect themselves, but also to set a great example for children," Vesely explains.

And regularly refresh yourself on how to correctly install a car seat. "If there's a car seat check event in your neighborhood, take the time to drive through and have the experts check out your car seat set up," says Dorothy Drago, MA, MPH, author of "From Crib to Kindergarten: The Essential Child Safety Guide."  It's not unusual for adults to install or to use a car seat incorrectly, in most cases, the problems are easy for a safety technician to identify and address.

Lisa D. Ellis is a journalist who writes about health, fitness and style topics for many websites. She is also the mother of two children. Her first novel, "Finding Lily," was recently published and is available on Amazon.

* This article is for general informational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be providing medical or safety advice and is not a substitute for such advice. The reader should always consult a health care provider concerning any medical condition or treatment plan. Neither Care.com nor the author assumes any responsibility or liability with respect to use of any information contained herein.

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