6 Tips for Winter Car Seat Safety

AmiJanell's son,
before she knew about coat safety.
Now that the weather is starting to cool down and winter is approaching, kids are wearing heavier coats, but those coats can be dangerous once your child is in the car. Bulky coats are unsafe when worn on a child in a 5-point harness.

We need to understand the risk winter coats pose when a child is in a car seat, so I put together a video to better illustrate the point, along with 6 safer choices on how to keep your kids well protected (and warm) in the car.



Well that video thumbnail is terribly unflattering, but the main point is, even a coat that looks relatively thin can add an incredibly amount of bulk. Even if you tighten the harness properly around the child with the coat on, that coat will compress much more in the event of an accident, leaving the straps incredibly loose. You wouldn't buckle your child in that loose, would you? But when they wear a coat while in the car seat, that is exactly what you're doing.

The only safe coats are ones that pass that test I did without a huge gap. A very tiny amount of difference between, say, a thin cotton shirt and a sweater is expected, but common sense should tell you that if you can pinch an inch or fit an arm underneath once you've tried them without the coat, it's way too bulky.

I'm originally from Colorado, where it can be 70 degrees in the morning and snowing that night. Layering is a skill that apparently a lot of the country hasn't caught on to yet, but can make all the difference in your car. Remember too that aside from newborns, kids don't need any more clothing or warmth than you do. If you can't make all these options work without the coat on under the harness, chances are it's so cold you'd freeze to death, too.

Here are some safe options to keep your child warm in the car:

1.  Fleece jackets, such as polar fleece or performance fleece, are incredibly warm, soft, comfortable, and most importantly, safe for use in a car seat.

Some good examples include this cute toddler girl performance fleece jacket from Old Navy for $16 or a nice Columbia fleece pullover (not pictured) from Back Country for $12-20.

In much colder climates, a little more money can get you extremely cold weather rated fleece.

2.  Thermal/long underwear. My son loves to wear these for the layered look, but he also will wear them under his normal clothes during the coldest parts of the year. Often sold as thermal pajama sets, such as this Scooby-Doo set from Target ($8), these fit comfortably under clothing. Just like before, if you live in a really cold climate or are incredibly concerned, a little more money can get you much warmer clothing, like this Molehill Mountain Power Dry Long Underwear Top from Outdoor Kids for $19.99.

3. Warm ponchos. A lot of work-at-home moms have created their own versions of fleece or other warm fabric ponchos that your child can wear. The idea is that your child keeps this warm shawl/poncho on, and when you put them in their seat, you flip the back up over the top of the seat and strap them in under it, so there is no bulk between them in their seat.

The Car Seat Poncho ($40 and up) is the most commonly known version, though you could easily make your own for a quarter of the cost.

4. Warm up your car. I realize this isn't always an option. My car, for example, has had the heater broken for about 5 years (the cost to fix it is worth about half the cost of our poor car). We've just learned to do without because we've had to, and honestly, it really hasn't been that big of a deal. It warms up eventually, but takes 20 to 30 minutes because the blower function is broken. In states like Colorado, it's illegal to leave a car unattended while it's running, so warming up a car becomes difficult. But when it is an option for you, it's obviously an easy answer.

5. Blankets. For some reason, this option is often overlooked. My rule of thumb is that if I'm going out in the cold, I'm going to make sure we can be safe if we were stranded -- that includes not relying on the heat in the car. Blankets are incredibly simple, but incredibly warm solutions -- just place it over your child already buckled in their car seat. There's a decent wool blanket at Army Surplus World for $28. You can even use a sleeping bag if you want. You can shell out extra money and get a below-freezing rated sleeping bag. Chances are your kiddo's going to overheat that way, but you won't worry about them being cold!

6. Put the coat on backwards. This solution can really be as simple as taking off the coat, buckling your child in, then putting the coat back on them backward. Especially if they're sufficiently dressed underneath, these five seconds of being exposed without a coat on isn't going to be a problem.

There are MANY options to keep your child warm. Buckling them in with their coat still on just isn't one of them. A lot of the items you can find at outdoor-stores are going to be higher quality, and have temperature ratings. Gloves and a hat will also keep your kid warm and won't interfere with the harness.

There are some "tricks" and "car seat coats" that still encourage bulk behind the child, even if they remove it in front. Some car seat technicians even suggest these, but they still fail the test I performed, and still break the rule about not adding extra bulk behind a child. After a car seat workshop instructor reviewed some of the products, she warned:

The rule of thumb is to have a baby’s back directly against the car seat with only padding that has been tested with a particular car seat in order to protect the spine. The seat helps spread out the forces of a collision.

She was concerned about the ... thickness and how much may bunch up between the baby’s back and the seat, and whether that gap would lessen the ability to have the harness properly snug. So, she would not recommend this product.

Skip any special tricks or products that still put bulk behind the child. The options above all have no risk and are proven safe.

Do you have any other safe suggestions for keeping kids warm in the car?


Images top to bottom: AmiJanell/CafeMom Old Navy; Car Seat Poncho


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