After you have chosen your car seat, it’s time to install it. To do that, you will need to:
Read the Directions
Before using the seat, read the car seat instruction manual and the section on child safety seats in your vehicle owner’s manual. The seat and the vehicle have to work together to safeguard your baby.
Put the Seat in the Correct Location in Your Car
Children 12 and under should ride properly restrained in the back seat. The center of the back seat is generally considered safest, but that location may not be recommended for a rear-facing seat if there is a fold-down armrest. Under no circumstances should you place a rear-facing infant in the front seat with an active passenger air bag. If you have side air bags in your back seat, read your vehicle owner’s manual, check with your dealer or vehicle manufacturer, or call a local car seat expert to ascertain if you can safely install your car seat in that position. Car seats can only be used on seats that face forward.
Babies must ride semi-upright, rear-facing until they are 2 years old or have reached the maximum height or weight limits of their seat. This allows the car seat to cradle the baby’s head, allows impact forces to be spread along the baby’s entire back, the strongest part of his body, and prevents the violent forward extension and flexion of the head and neck that can cause severe head and spinal cord injuries.
When your baby is too big for his infant seat, move him into a convertible seat in the semi-upright, rear-facing position with the harness straps in the slot at or slightly below his shoulders. It is much safer for the baby to ride rear-facing, so do not rush to turn him forward. When purchasing your convertible car seat, buy one with a rear-facing weight limit of 30 to 35 pounds (there is a forward-facing limit of 40 pounds) and a five-point harness system. The five-point harness system is considered by most experts to be a better system than the overhead shields and trays. Your baby is too tall for the rear-facing position when he has less than one inch of room from the top of his head to the top of the seat. Do not worry about his legs. Most babies can be rear-faced for 18 to 36 months, thus giving their fragile bodies more time to strengthen and grow.
Once children are forward-facing, the car seat should be placed in the fully upright position, and the shoulder harness must be moved to the upper slots as directed by the manufacturer. The center of the back seat remains the best location for your car seat unless the space between the two parts of the seat belt is narrower than the car seat frame, or the parts come out of the seat bench several inches away from the back of the vehicle seat, thus not allowing for a tight installation.
Use the Seat Belt to Secure the Car Seat in the Vehicle
First, thread the seat belt through the correct slots on the car seat as directed by the manufacturer: under or over the baby’s legs when rear-facing and behind the baby’s back when forward-facing. Then tighten the belt while using your body weight to push the seat deeply into the vehicle seat cushion. Next, test for tautness: Holding the car seat near the belt routing path, forcefully pull the car seat toward the front of the vehicle and push it side to side. If your seat moves more than one inch in either direction, try to tighten it more (it may take two people), reread your manuals, call the manufacturer for help, or call a local safety advocate, such as SAFE KIDS, for advice. Many people now go to a certified child passenger safety technician for hands-on assistance with installation. Visit www.NHTSA.gov for a list of certified technicians in your area, or call your state highway administration.
Some seat belts such as those that come out of the seat bench several inches in front of the back seat cannot hold a car seat tightly. Others, such as those attached to the vehicle’s door, can never be used to attach a car seat. Consult your local safety advocate for alternatives.
Some seat belts need metal locking clips to lock the lap belt to the shoulder belt so the car seat will not move. Check your manuals, and also check the seat belt for an instructional tag.
There is a new system, called LATCH (Lower Anchors Tethers for CHildren), that will make it easier to install car seats properly. Since September 1999, all vehicles have upper anchor locations and all car seats have tether (or top anchor) straps that are hooked onto these anchors and tightened. Tethers are used when the seat is forward-facing (in addition to the vehicle’s seat belt or the latch belt, which is placed through the belt routing path) to decrease the forward motion of the seat. This increases protection for your child’s upper body, especially the head. Use of the tether has also been found to decrease side-to-side motion of the head in a side-impact collision and has decreased head and neck injuries significantly. If your vehicle does not already have the factory-installed tether anchor, with few exceptions, it can be retrofitted to your vehicle at no charge. Contact your dealer or vehicle manufacturer. The lower anchor system is found in all vehicles and car seats manufactured after September 1, 2002. Vehicles will have two U-shaped metal bars in or near the seat crack in at least two seating positions. Car seats will have a belt that goes through the belt routing path or two rigid bars that attach to these anchors, thus eliminating the use of the vehicle seat belts. The lower anchors can be used whether the seat is rear or forward-facing. If your vehicle does not already have the lower anchors, they probably cannot be retrofitted. However, many older car seats can be retrofitted with a latch belt if a vehicle does have the lower anchors. You must only use the latch belt made by your car seat manufacturer.
Adjust the Harness System
The harness will adjust to fit any child whose size is appropriate for the seat. Your harness will be one of three types: two shoulder straps with a crotch strap (infant seats only); two shoulder straps that attach to a T-shaped shield or a padded bar that goes over the baby’s head and buckles into the crotch buckle; or two lap- shoulder straps that buckle into the crotch strap (five-point harness). Experts consider the five-point system to be the best.
When putting your child into a car seat, make sure his body is flush against the seat. Place the harness directly on his shoulders. It is tight enough when you cannot pinch the webbing between your fingers. Do not place the harness over heavy clothing such as buntings or snowsuits, which make it impossible to tighten the straps properly. If you are using an infant car seat, dress the baby in nothing heavier than a fleece outfit. Harness him securely, the cover him with blankets and use a car seat cover to keep him warm. With a convertible seat, use a jacket instead of a full-body snowsuit; open the jacket, tighten the harness over your child, then close the jacket back over the straps.
If you need additional help installing your car seat, call your car-seat or vehicle manufacturer, Office of Highway Safety, police or fire department, hospital or health department, or your local SAFEKIDS Coalition. Many communities offer car-seat checkups, in which an expert can assist you in the proper installation and use of your seat.
For more information, see our additional content on car seats:
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the American Academy of Pediatrics also have information on the new LATCH system.