I really failed at preparing for my first child’s first car seat. And by failed I mean I didn’t do anything at all. We didn’t own a car and had been given a hand-me-down bucket seat which I entrusted my husband to know how to use and how to install in the car-share vehicle we would eventually take to the hospital.
Things I know now:
- My husband doesn’t read instruction manuals nor take much interest in car seat installation.
- The car seat we had didn’t fit our son properly or safely.
- We drove our son home in an ill-fitting car seat that was about as poorly installed as can possibly be managed.
So here I am, a trained Child Passenger Safety Technician (CPST), about to give birth to my third and fourth children, ready to help you not make the same mistakes as I did.
How do I choose the right car seat?
The vast majority of parents opt for what is known as a “rear-facing only” (RFO) car seat. You will also see it called an infant car seat or a bucket seat. This is the type of car seat that has a base that stays in the vehicle and a bucket portion that has a handle to make it easy for parents to transport baby from indoors to the vehicle and back again. These car seats also clip onto compatible stroller systems.
There are also parents who choose to skip the RFO stage and install a convertible car seat. This is the type of seat that sits rear-facing in the vehicle but does not get removed from the vehicle. This seat can then be used forward-facing when the child is over 2 and meets the height and weight requirements. (There’s nothing wrong with keeping a child rear-facing longer, 2 is just the minimum.)
Many convertible seats fit newborns fine, but the disadvantage is, of course, that you must carry baby to and from the vehicle rather than getting them seated in the comfort of your home. You may also encounter some pushback from nurses when leaving the hospital since you are not leaving with baby in a bucket seat for them to check. (Unfortunately, some nurses give well-intentioned but incorrect information about newborns and car seats, so it’s important that as a parent you are aware of current best practices and how to use your chosen car seat.) A list of recommended convertible seats is here.
When you’re ready to choose a car seat, a really great place to start for Canadian parents is this list of recommended RFOs from Vancouver Island Car Seat Techs. If the seat you’re interested in is not on this list, there’s probably a reason why (unless it is brand new on the market). For example, Britax RFOs are known for being very narrow, so children often outgrow them in chubbiness before they actually outgrow the seat in terms of height or weight. The Peg Perego Primo Viaggio 4-35 is a gorgeous seat, but it takes up quite a bit of room front-to-back with its difficult-to-achieve newborn recline (often needs a pool noodle) and the multiple levels of cushions are confusing. Baby Trend seats (the kind I had for my firstborn) are notorious for providing an unsafe fit for newborns. Their lowest harness height is 9″ and rare is the newborn baby whose seated height is 9″, meaning most babies have the harness above their shoulders, which is unsafe. When used and installed properly, these seats are safe. You just might be disappointed by how quickly a Britax is outgrown, by the extra steps involved in properly using the Peg, and you may not be able to use a Baby Trend safely right from birth.
In terms of pricing, a more expensive RFO does not equal a safer one. A higher price point usually means more convenience features. All RFOs whether they’re $100 or $500 meet the same high Canadian safety standards.
The most important thing is that you can install and safely use a seat that is a good fit for both your child and vehicle.
Naturally, you won’t know how your baby fits in the seat until they arrive, but if you stick to the recommended seats you should be fine. Most seats will allow for small modifications, like rolled up receiving blankets on either side of baby, to improve fit.
You may be planning to use your RFO with a stroller system. My advice is to choose a stroller that you are confident you will love for four or more years, rather than just choosing a stroller that comes with a car seat. Your infant car seat will be used for about a year, but your stroller will be in use for many more years. Ideally, choose your car seat and your stroller separately, and then hope the two are compatible!
If you have a compact vehicle, you’ll want to test your chosen car seat in your car before purchase if possible. If you have a particularly tall driver or passenger in front of your chosen position for the seat, you need to make sure the seat fits without bracing against the front seat. If you cannot test the seat in advance, either contact a CPST local to you who may know offhand how your chosen car seat fits in your vehicle or ask in a CPST-moderated Facebook group.
Remember to register your seat with the manufacturer so that you will be notified of any safety recalls.
What should I do before I try to install my seat?
Let’s get some of the technical mumbo jumbo out of the way first. There are two ways to secure a car seat to a vehicle. One is using the vehicle’s seat belt and the other is using the vehicle’s universal anchorage system (UAS), also referred to as LATCH. Both are equally safe when used correctly.
Typically you’ll find it easier to install your car seat using UAS: the seat will come with connectors that clip onto the anchors embedded in your vehicle seat. Your car seat manual will explain exactly how to install your seat using a lap/shoulder belt, a lap belt and UAS.
Scheduling a prenatal seat check with a local CPST is a wonderful way to get a crash course on how to use your car seat properly in your vehicle. Whether you plan to meet with a tech or not, your first step for correctly using your newly purchased seat is to thoroughly read the seat manual AND your vehicle owner’s manual.
I didn’t crack open my vehicle owner’s manual until after my CPST training. Who knew it would contain so much vital information about car seats? Well, maybe you knew this … but I did not. So I want you and your favourite warm beverage to sit down at your kitchen table with the manuals for the car seat and your vehicle in front of you and put your thinking cap on. (Note that you can also find PDF versions for most vehicles and car seats online if necessary.)
Most owner’s manuals will have information on child restraint installation somewhere after the section on how to operate your seat belt. Read through this section thoroughly—sometimes the most important information can be hidden in a random warning box three pages in.
That’s why I wrote this post highlighting all the information you should look for in your owner’s manual.
Read your car seat manual thoroughly to understand exactly how to install your seat base by your chosen method (seat belt or UAS). You will also find information on how to install your seat without its base. Make sure you are familiar with this method. Note that all installation instructions are also summarized on the stickers on the side of your seat.
How do I choose where to install the car seat?
First step? Check your vehicle owner’s manual to confirm which positions are suitable for a car seat. In theory, the centre position is the safest for any passenger, but in practice, it can be awkward to install a car seat in the centre position and some vehicles prohibit it or advise against it.
The best position to install your child’s car seat is the position where you can get a secure installation and easily access and use the seat properly for every ride. You may want to take into consideration your parking situation. If you often street park outside your home, installing passenger side means you are loading and unloading baby onto the sidewalk. However, if you drive a compact car and your partner is very tall and typically rides as a passenger, your car seat might fit better behind the driver. Every family’s situation will be different.
How do I make sure I am installing my seat correctly?
Follow your manual! The following videos will give you an overview of the correct technique.
Here’s a video showing how to install an infant seat with UAS:
And one showing how to install using the seat belt:
Check the angle:
When installing your car seat base, you will need to make sure you achieve the correct angle.
Each car seat has different requirements for angle. Some have a fixed angle: no matter the age or size of baby, your seat must always be at this angle. Others require you to change the angle as baby grows, or allow a slight variation in the angle once baby meets a certain weight.
Some seats have a line etched on the side or illustrated on a sticker that must be parallel with the ground while others will have a bubble or ball in a clear shell, like you’d find on a level, so you can properly assess the angle of the installed seat. (Some seats have both: a bubble for use with the car seat base and a line for when you are using the car seat without its base.) Most car seat bases will have a foot that can be adjusted to achieve the correct angle depending on the geometry of your vehicle seat.
If you cannot achieve the correct recline, your manual should explain what do to. Usually a pool noodle or tightly rolled and taped towel can be used. If you’re not sure, call the car seat manufacturer.
Once your base is correctly installed, place the seat on the base and confirm you still have the correct angle.
Check the tightness:
To make sure your car seat base is secure, use your non-dominant hand and give a firm handshake to the base at the belt path. The base should not move more than an inch from side to side. You will see this demonstrated in the two videos above.
Once your base is tight enough, place the car seat on top and make sure it is still tight enough.
Check for overhang:
Overhang occurs when the base of the infant car seat hangs over the vehicle seat. Usually some overhang is permitted, but the amount varies among manufacturers. If you cannot find this information in your manual or on the manufacturer’s online FAQ, call the manufacturer.
How do I make sure I’m using the car seat correctly?
My first tip is to make sure baby’s bum and back are in full contact with the back of the car seat when you are seating them. (See illustration under “Harness Height.”)
Here’s a great video on how to put baby into their seat properly:
Your manual will specify exactly how to ensure your child is seated properly in their seat. Remember that the harness straps need to be at or below the child’s shoulders. If your car seat has a no rethread harness, you can easily move the harness straps up and down, usually by pulling the seat’s headrest up and down. Otherwise, you will need to adjust the harness by unthreading and rethreading the straps as shown in your manual. For your newborn, have the straps ready at the lowest height.
Here are some good diagrams from the Graco Snugride:
Some infant seats have an adjustable harness length. You’ll want it on the shorter length for your newborn, but when you start running out of slack, you’ll need to go to the longer length.
Here’s an example from the Graco Snugride:
The harness should pass the pinch test, which means there shouldn’t be enough slack to pinch between your fingers. Here’s a video with an older child:
Here is a visual from the Chicco Keyfit 30 manual:
The harness is typically tightened by pulling the strap at the front of the seat.
The chest clip should be at armpit level.
If your seat comes with removable padding, make sure you understand when to use it.
Many seats have specific padding required for newborns. For example, you can only use the infant insert in the Chicco Keyfit for children 11 lb and less:
Do not add aftermarket padding to your seat. (Aftermarket padding is padding that did not come with your car seat.)
For most seats, it is acceptable to remove the included harness pads for a newborn. (The harness pads can interfere with a good fit, since they are so large on a fresh baby’s tiny body.) Confirm in your manual or with the manufacturer.
If your car seat crotch buckle has more than one position, consult your manual to see when you should adjust its position and how to do so.
Check your manual to confirm where your infant seat’s handle should be positioned when in the car. Some seats require it to be up, some require it at baby’s head, some at baby’s feet. There is no one true way!
Here are the instructions for the Chicco Keyfit 30:
I can’t say this any more clearly myself:
And just as you should not add any aftermarket padding to your seat, do not attach toys to the handle.
How do you keep baby warm?
Do not use sleeping-bag-style bunting bags in your seat, and do not dress baby in thick layers before buckling them in. Place blankets on TOP of baby once they are buckled. Shower-cap-style covers are great, as they protect baby from the elements without interfering with the seat’s harness.
From Chicco Keyfit 30:
When is the seat outgrown?
Make sure you know how to tell when baby has outgrown their seat. Not only will the seat have a height and weight maximum, but will also specify how much space must be between the top of the child’s head and the shell of the car seat. Also make sure you know when your car seat expires.
Here is the pertinent page for the Graco Snugride 35:
Your car seat is meant for the car. Aside from compatible stroller systems, you should not be using the car seat for other purposes. It is not a suitable place for baby to nap at home, and you should never “click” your car seat onto the top of a shopping cart: place the car seat inside the shopping cart so the cart isn’t top heavy.
If you are travelling long distances, you should take baby out of their car seat at least every two hours.
Buckle baby in at all times. Whether you are carrying the seat to the car, the seat is secured to a compatible stroller or you are setting the seat next to you at a restaurant, keep baby buckled.
If you are having trouble getting baby seated properly, I recommend meeting with a CPST.
If you feel like you need an aftermarket product such as a head support pillow, then something is likely wrong with how baby is fitting in their seat or how the seat is installed. The only thing you can safely add to baby’s seat are tightly rolled receiving blankets on either side of baby’s body: NOT around the head. Here is more information on safely positioning baby using rolled receiving blankets.
Cleaning your infant seat
Specific cleaning instructions for your seat will be located in the back of the manual. Follow them.
Know your manual
I’ve heard of many cases where a well-intentioned nurse has parents remove padding from a car seat because they mistake it for aftermarket padding. Have the manual stored IN your car seat (each seat has a spot for the manual) so you can show the nurse that the padding in your seat is required.
If the nurse is telling you to do something that you think is incorrect for your seat, it will help to know where to find the correct information in your manual.
I’ve made this printable worksheet to help you understand your infant car seat:
If you cannot find the information you need to fill out this worksheet, contact your car seat manufacturer and/or reach out to a Child Passenger Safety Technician.