Young girl in car seat Most parents know how important it is to put children in safety seats to protect them from injury in the event of a car crash. And most know the basics of where to place the safety seat and the different types of seats to use as children grow.

Those basics are critically important, but parents often make mistakes in the way they install and use safety seats, and in deciding when to move children from one type of seat to another.

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 the following guidance.

Use the right type of safety seat

All infants and toddlers should ride in a rear-facing car 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.

Install the safety seat tightly and securely

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

  • When installing the safety seat, use your strength to tighten the seat belt. When the safety seat is installed correctly, you should not be able to move it more than an inch in any direction. Check the safety seat regularly to make sure the seat belt hasn’t loosened over time, allowing the safety seat to tip or move from side to side.

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.”

  • 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 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 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 in to allow for a snug fit in the safety seat.

For more information

For an expert assessment of your child’s car seat and its installation, consider attending a car seat check. 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. Visit the Car Seat Checks webpage to find a location in the Greater Philadelphia area.

CHOP’s Car Seat Safety for Kids program is a great source for free online videos and information sheets. It offers information about the different types of seats recommended for children of different ages, and visuals showing correct installation and use.

If you live in the Philadelphia area, you might consider a visit to CHOP’s Safety Center, which offers children’s safety products at low cost, including car seats.

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