I did not write the book on car seat safety. Heck, I’m still reading and re-reading the book and processing my guilt over the many, many mistakes I’ve made installing and using car seats since before I even had children of my own. If ever there was a case for the expression “know better, do better,” my history with car seats would be it. Unfortunately, discussions about car seat safety can quickly turn sanctimonious. I always approach car seat safety with the certainty that we all want what is best for our children, and all of us have been in a situation where we’ve either made a mistake due to lack of knowledge or by accident.
In April, I became certified as a Child Passenger Safety Technician (CPST) through an organization called The Child Passenger Safety Association of Canada (CPSAC). Over the course of three days, I received training to “help parents and caregivers learn about how to select, install, and properly use CRSs (child restraint systems) and booster seats.” We covered laws and regulations, the physics of car crashes and, of course, how to correctly use the four different safety restraints: rear-facing seats, forward-facing seats, booster seats and the adult seat belt. I got 100% on my multiple-choice exam! (Full disclosure: I have a Bachelor of Education … I know how to ace a multiple-choice exam.) The practical side of the course—helping parents and caregivers with their seats at a car seat clinic—was intimidating and rewarding. Coincidentally, I helped people with seats I’d used for my children … and as I helped them using all the tools from my training, I was mortified to discover the mistakes I’d made myself.
Why did I want to become a CPST? Honestly, the first reason is because I got to go on a road trip with my blogging bestie, someone whose lengthy rants about car seat safety I have been known to tune out. A lot of the times when Stef (The Monarch Mommy) would talk to me about a new car seat on the market or a certain installation error someone was making, the actual implications of what she was saying would go right over my head. But that’s because Stef speaks car seats. She is comfortable with the lingo, she loves reading manuals and she spends a lot of time in car seat forums moderated by CPSTs on Facebook. (And yes, she also knows a ton about laundry machines and cloth diapers … she’s got a passion for research and an encyclopedic memory.) She could’ve easily passed our CPST training without actually sitting through the 13 hours of instruction.
But I also wanted to take the CPST course because I wanted to understand what Stef was talking about. I saw it as a chance to use my experience as a high school teacher to take my own new-found understanding and translate it into something digestible for other parents who have a million other things on their minds besides car seats. One of the things that made me a good French teacher was that I completely understood the struggles of learning French—it’s not my mother tongue, and I studied and traveled and studied some more to become fluent. I could put myself in my students’ shoes when faced with yet another irregular verb, and I could predict the errors they would make before they made them. Because I was so car seat illiterate just a few weeks ago, I now feel like I can really help parents without judgment and with compassion. I can share with them the things that I’ve done wrong in the past and either help them correct those same mistakes or prevent them from making mistakes in the first place.
Probably the most valuable tool I’ve taken away from my CPST training is knowing what questions to ask when it comes to a car seat, a vehicle and the child using the seat and where to look to find those answers. Many of these questions had never dawned on me before … and that’s where my mistakes came in! So without further ado, here are the questions you may be asking yourself and where to go for the answers. (Please keep in mind that car seat regulations vary between the US and Canada and that my resources are mainly Canadian.)
Answers to Your Car Seat Questions
How can I find a CPST to help me?
Free Car Seat Clinics are held in various cities across the country. You can find CPSAC’s calendar here.
Contrary to popular belief, fire fighters and police are not normally trained to check car seats. Some car seat retailers do have trained staff, but you’ll have to ask them to find out.
How can I become a CPST?
If you’re interested in CPST training, sign up here to receive email notifications for course dates.
What are the laws in my province about car seat and booster use?
Each province and territory has different laws regarding the use of car seats. Current laws are not reflective of best practices, and groups like the CPSAC advocate for rear-facing until the rear-facing maximum (either for height or weight) has been reached, forward-facing harnessing until the child is mature enough to use a booster and boostering until the child is the right size to be properly protected by an adult seat belt. This table summarizes current laws in Canada.
An interesting observation about Alberta’s law, which may seem like it allows for a child who is 18 kg (40 lbs) or 6 years old to sit without a car seat or booster, is that the law also states: “A person who is required to wear a seat belt assembly … shall wear the seat belt assembly properly adjusted and securely fastened.”
My son is over 18 kg, but the adult seat belt isn’t even close to “properly adjusted” on him, thus making it technically illegal for him to sit without a car seat or booster.
How do I know if my child is ready for the next “stage” of car seat?
Let’s take a look at best practices for car seat use rather than the legal minimums:
- How long should my child stay rear-facing (Stage 1)?
The longer the better. If your child is in a bucket seat (the infant seat with a handle), and they’ve outgrown it according to the manufacturer’s maximums for height and weight or there is less than one inch of space between the top of the head and the shell of the car seat, then it’s time to switch them to what is known as a “convertible” car seat: a seat that can be used both rear and forward facing. This seat will allow your child to continue rear-facing until they’re ready to switch to forward- facing. Car seat techs advocate rear-facing a child until they’ve reached the maximum for their seat (see the next question). For more information, read Top Ten Tips: Rear Facing by Vancouver Island Car Seat Techs.
- When can I turn my child forward-facing (Stage 2)?
More and more convertible car seat manufacturers are setting two years as the minimum age to turn their seats to the forward-facing position. A child is ultimately safer in a rear-facing seat, so rear-facing past the age of two is even better when possible! If your child has outgrown the maximum height or weight for their seat in rear-facing mode, or if there is less than one inch of space between the top of their head and the top of the car seat, it’s time to switch the seat to the forward-facing position. For more information, read this article on forward facing.
- When can I put my child in a booster seat (Stage 3)?
The question of booster seat use is more about a child’s maturity than their size, although booster seats will have a minimum weight and height for use. If your child outgrows their harnessed, forward-facing seat and they are not yet mature enough to use a booster, you will need to buy a forward-facing seat to keep them harnessed longer. (Many models convert from forward-facing to booster mode.) Having the maturity to use a booster means your child will not play with their seat belt, unbuckle themselves or squirm out of position. Most children are mature enough for a booster seat around age six. For more information, read Harness or Booster: When to Make the Switch.
- When can my child use an adult seat belt without a booster seat (Stage 4)?
When the adult seat belt fits them properly, the child can ride in the back seat without a booster. This is usually around age ten. Use the 5-step test to determine if your child is ready to use the adult seat belt. For more information, check out the Vancouver Island Car Seat Tech’s post on this stage.
- When can my child sit in the front seat?
At age thirteen, children can sit in the front seat. (The primary concern for riding in the front seat is that the vehicle’s air bags could seriously injure a child.) For more information, check out this page from Transport Canada.
How do I know when my car seat or booster expires?
Car seat expiration varies from manufacturer to manufacturer. If it is not printed directly on the seat, the manual should specify how many years from the date of manufacture the car seat may be used. The date of manufacture will be indicated on the car seat. If you are unable to find this information, contact the manufacturer.
If your car seat has expired, you may be able to find a car seat recycling program near you. Otherwise, cut the straps and write “EXPIRED” on the shell, and dispose of it with your regular trash.
For more information about WHY car seats expire, check out this post from The Monarch Mommy.
How do I know if there’s a recall on my car seat or booster?
You should ensure that you have registered your car seat with the manufacturer as they are obligated by law to contact you in the case of a recall. You can also search your car seat model in Transport Canada’s database.
In case you haven’t registered your seat, Transport Canada lists the registration pages for car seat manufacturers here.
How do I properly secure my child in a 5-point harness?
There are several important factors for using a 5-point harness correctly:
- Harness at or BELOW shoulders for rear-facing
- Harness at or ABOVE shoulders for forward-facing
- Harness should be tight enough that you cannot pinch any slack at the shoulder
- The chest clip should be level with the child’s armpits
- The child should not be wearing bulky clothing, including snow suits
- The straps should not be twisted in any way
How do I secure my child properly in a booster seat?
This was a part of my CPST training for which I had zero prior knowledge. I honestly thought that any booster seat would do the trick for any kid in any car. Alas, that’s like saying a one-size-fits-all t-shirt will work for any adult. The best way to think about a booster seat is that it is boosting the child up so that the adult seat belt acts on their body the way it acts on YOUR body. Next time you sit in a vehicle, notice where the belt lays across your chest and your shoulder, and notice where it sits on your hips. The booster seat should create the same belt fit for your child as the adult seat belt alone should for you. A high-backed booster will also provide some head and neck support.
When using a booster, proper belt position is key:
- The shoulder portion of the belt should be touching the chest and centred on the collarbone
- The lap portion of the belt should be low on the child’s hips and touching thighs—not far down on the thighs and not riding up on the belly
Note that you cannot use a booster seat in a position with only a lap belt.
Can I use an aftermarket accessory with my car seat?
What’s an aftermarket accessory? It’s something that did NOT come with your car seat. Examples range from infant neck supports, strap protectors, dangling toys, mirrors that attach to your vehicle’s headrest, “Cuddle Bag” type sacks that sit inside a bucket to the roll up shades for vehicle windows.
If the accessory is designed by your car seat manufacturer and approved for use with your car seat, of course, that’s no issue. This means the manufacturer has tested the item with their seat(s). If you’re not sure, the best thing to do is contact your car seat manufacturer to explicitly ask if a given product can be used. Contact info for your manufacturer will be in your manual or easily found on the internet.
Dangling toys and window protectors can become projectiles in the case of a collision. I think back to the roll up shade I used to use with its heavy metal bar that suctioned to the window and realize that it would’ve really hurt if it flew off into a child’s head. If hats and sunglasses aren’t a sun protection option, have a look at super lightweight shades (Ask yourself: Can I hit myself hard in the head with this?!) or the static-cling ones that stick to the window.
A great observation from my instructor with regards to aftermarket products was that parents buy aftermarket products to solve a problem. But that problem is often caused by an installation or usage error. A great example would be the neck support cushions that are sold for infant bucket seats. If your newborn’s head is slumping in her car seat, this is definitely a cause for concern as it could interfere with her breathing. However, buying an infant neck support cushion is not the solution. The solution would be to contact a CPST to help troubleshoot your installation and how your infant fits in her seat. (If your seat installation and usage is correct, you can use two rolled up receiving blankets to cradle the child’s head, as shown here.
How do I know if the car seat I’m looking at will work well in my vehicle?
Well, if you’re already wondering that, I must congratulate you. I never asked this question of the car seat I bought for Cub. My thought process went like this: “It’s expensive and other parents say it’s good. It must fit in any car!” In hindsight, this was a ridiculous thought, but hey, you live and you learn. Did you know that there are some car seats that are simply incompatible with certain vehicles? Me neither.
To avoid buying a car seat that doesn’t work in your vehicle, here are some steps to take:
- Read your vehicle’s manual. Anyone else never open that brick in their glove compartment? Yeah, you’re not alone. But your vehicle manual has a whole section on using car seats and boosters.
- Preview the manual for the seats you’re looking at. You can usually find the manuals on the manufacturer’s website.
- Ask a CPST either in person or in a group like SEATS for Kids. Since CPSTs work with tons of car seats in tons of vehicles, they’ll likely know of any really common incompatibilities and be able to help guide you. Do not just rely on the recommendations of someone else who owns the same car as you and the same seat: check with a CPST!
- Shop somewhere that allows you to take the floor model out to your vehicle to try it in your car.
- Don’t forget to consider other people in your vehicle: What other seats are in use? Is the front passenger or driver particularly tall?
If you are shopping for a new vehicle and want to make sure it will work well for your family (even if there are no children yet), shop with Car Seat Goggles!
An example of why it is important to check the compatibility of a car seat and a vehicle: Some car seats require the vehicle headrest to remain in place; some vehicles require the headrest to be removed when using a car seat (especially with a forward-facing seat). If your vehicle manufacturer says the headrest must come off and the car seat manufacturer says the headrest must reamin in place … your seat is incompatible with your vehicle.
How do I know if the car seat I’m looking at will work well for my child?
Some seats are great for shorter kids, but kids that are above-average in height will outgrow them quickly. I love our Symphony DLX car seat, but a child can only remain rear-facing in it until 37 inches tall. (Update! I just read in Evenflo’s FAQ that the height max for our seat has been increased to 40 inches, retroactively.) Little Miss Cub is a pretty small kid, so this should get us pretty close to three years old. However, her 90th percentile brother would have had to be switch to forward-facing much earlier than desired if he had used this eat. Some seats are good for kids with long torsos, some seats have better support for kids whose heads flop when they nap, etc. If possible, have your child sit in the floor model seats at your local retailer. Really, it’s like the advice I give for cloth diapers. Every cloth diaper doesn’t work on every baby, so I use my experience with different brands to help parents make the right choice. Why I didn’t apply this thinking to my own car seat shopping I will never know!
Again, the best way to ensure you’re making a great choice is to talk to a CPST. They’ll want to know your child’s stats, how long you plan to rear-face (if applicable), your budget and, of course, your vehicle.
You can find car seat recommendations by CPSTs here:
How do I know if my car seat is installed properly?
Your manual will specify how to check for a correct installation. Read. Your. Manual. Cover. To. Cover. I say this as someone who has failed to do this in the past and as someone who typically skims over warnings assuming they’re just obvious things like “Don’t put your baby in this box.” Pour yourself a cup of your favourite beverage, and read that manual like you’re studying for a final exam. Then consult your vehicle manual. Your vehicle manual will show you where the tethers are in your vehicle, for example. If you have a forward-facing seat, you must install it in a position that has a tether location. Your vehicle manual will tell you where the UAS (Universal Anchorage System) anchors are in your vehicle seats. Your outboard passenger seats will likely have UAS, but many centre positions do not. Your vehicle manual may also tell you if you can or cannot remove the headrest on a seat to accommodate a car seat. If you’ve read both your car seat and vehicle manuals and you are still unsure if any aspect of your installation is correct, ask a CPST or call your vehicle and car seat manufacturers.
These are the most common installation errors I’ve seen in my very limited experience (and most of these I’ve made myself):
(Click the underlined text in each point for an article or video to help troubleshoot the issue.)
- Rear-facing seat is over reclined or not reclined enough. (Each seat will have a recline indicator of some kind on it, so consult your manual!)
- The seat is secured to the vehicle using BOTH the seat belt and the UAS. Use one or the other, not both! (Unless otherwise specified by your manual.)
- The UAS connectors are upside down. (Think of them like staplers, this helps!)
- The tether is not used or is used incorrectly for a forward-facing seat.
- The seat belt is used to secure the car seat but the seat belt has not been locked. (Refer to your vehicle manual for how to lock your seat belt.) I’m not proud to admit that this is how Cub came home from the hospital in his bucket seat!
- The seat belt or UAS straps are routed through the incorrect belt path. When my husband reinstalled our son’s forward-facing seat, he routed the seatbelt through the path that is for REAR FACING. The paths will be labelled on your seat.
- The seat is not tight enough: it moves more than 1″ side to side when you pull it at the belt path (both rear facing and forward facing seats) or moves more than 1″ or kicks out when you pull the front of the seat (for forward facing seats). Here‘s a great explanation of how to check for movement.
- Aftermarket products used. (See above)
- The vehicle headrest is in the wrong position: this is when you need to consult both your vehicle manual and your car seat manual, and possibly one or both manufacturers when you’re not sure!
See also General Car Seat Tips from Vancouver Island Car Seat Technicians http://vicarseattechs.com/general-car-seat-tips/]
What will a CPST do during a car seat inspection?
A CPST will want to know your child’s stats (age, weight, height), your car seat make and model and your vehicle make and model. If you’re making an appointment, you can provide this information in advance, allowing the tech to familiarize themselves with the seat and the vehicle ahead of time. If your car seat is already installed, they will have a look at how you’ve done it so that they can teach you about any corrections that might need to be made. They will fill out a checklist about how your car seat arrives, but don’t stress! It’s not a test! If your child is with you, they’ll want to see the child seated and buckled. Together you will uninstall the seat and inspect it, with the tech going over any features you might be wondering about as well as pointing out and recording the seat’s serial number and expiration date and checking for any recalls on your seat. The tech will likely have you refer to your vehicle manual and your car seat manual to confirm appropriate installation. Topics such as when to switch your child to the next stage of seat will be discussed. The tech will help you reinstall the seat and teach you any techniques that might be required to help you get a perfect install. We want you to leave confident that you know how to use your own seat correctly!
Even if baby isn’t born yet, you can do a “prenatal seat check.” The tech will go over how to properly install and use your infant seat! (Man do I ever wish I’d done this …) You can also have the tech check that your child is safe using the adult seat belt if you think they’re nearing the end of their booster years.
A car seat inspection IS NOT A TEST! You don’t pass or fail, and we are not going to judge you for crumbs on the cushion or any mistakes you may have made. You will be judged on your awesomeness for wanting to learn about car seat safety.
Where do I find studies that support car seat best practices?
Check out the resource library at Car Seats for the Littles!
What does this term mean that I keep seeing used in discussions about car seats?
If you’ve ever been baffled by “car seat lingo,” there’s a dictionary for that!
There are no dumb questions. If you have a doubt about your car seat, ask. I know it sucks to find out you’ve been doing something wrong, but it would suck even more to never find out and have your child experience injuries that could’ve been prevented by correct car seat usage. The list of different ways I’ve personally misused and incorrectly installed our car seats is long, so don’t be embarrassed. Ask. Know better. Do better.