Young girl in car seat Every third week of September is Child Passenger Safety Week. It’s a time to call attention to the fact that motor vehicle crashes — which are a leading cause of death among children in the United States — can largely be prevented when child safety seats are used properly.

Here, Gina Duchossois, MS, an injury prevention expert with the Injury Prevention Program at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and Chair of the Safe Kids Southeastern Pennsylvania Coalition, offers helpful guidance, including how to properly install and use car seats and when to move children from one type of seat to another.

Use the right type of safety seat

As children grow, the model of car seat changes to keep up with their age and their size. All infants and toddlers should ride in a rear-facing child safety seat (CSS) as long as possible, until they reach the highest weight or height allowed by their CSS manufacturer. Most convertible seats have limits that will permit children to ride rear-facing for two years or more.

After outgrowing the rear-facing car seat, use a forward-facing car seat. When children outgrow their forward-facing seat, they should be buckled in a belt-positioning booster seat until seat belts fit properly (when the lap belt lays across the upper thighs and the shoulder belt lays across the chest).

Install the safety seat tightly and securely

“A common mistake parents make is to put a child in a car seat that is not tightly secured,” says Duchossois.

When installing the car seat, place your weight into the seat and  tighten the seat belt. When the car seat is installed correctly, you should not be able to move it more than an inch in any direction at the belt path. Check the car seat regularly to make sure the seat belt hasn’t loosened over time.

Adjust the harness

“Another common mistake is to leave the harness too loose,” says Duchossois. “It should fit snugly so there is no slack in the straps.”

She offers the following tips to ensure the harness is tight enough:

  • When you strap your child into the safety seat, do a pinch test on the strap webbing at the top of your child’s shoulders. If you are able to pinch extra webbing, the strap is too loose. Adjust it to make a snug fit.
  • Do a visual check to make sure that the chest clip is at armpit height and the shoulder harnesses are at the correct height. For rear-facing child safety seats, the shoulder straps should be threaded through slots in the seat that are at or below your child’s shoulders. For forward-facing child safety seats, the shoulder straps should go through slots that are at or above your child’s shoulders.
  • In cold weather, remove bulky jackets and snowsuits before buckling your child into the harness to allow for a snug fit in the safety seat.

Get a car seat check

For an expert assessment of your child’s car seat and its installation, take advantage of local car seat safety checks held nationwide during National Child Passenger Safety Week. These are free events, usually at fire stations or hospitals, where a trained technician will work with you to teach you the best way to install and correctly use your child’s safety seat. You can also register for a virtual car seat check.

Visit the Car Seat Checks webpage to find a location in the Greater Philadelphia area and learn about options for virtual car seat checks.

Watch our how-to videos

CHOP’s Car Seat Safety for Kids program is a great resource for free information about the different types of child safety seats recommended for children of different ages. The site offers a suite of educational videos showing correct installation and use of child safety seat and booster seats for parents/caregivers.

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