The 1 Car Seat Mistake That 86 Percent of All Parents Are Making

mom putting child in her car seat
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You might think that you've got your car seat safety skills on lock, but a new study has found that most parents are making seat mistakes when it comes time to buckle up baby for a ride. The study, conducted by the Journal of Pediatrics, found that a shocking 95 percent of families were making at least one major error when installing the car seat but 86 percent of parents were actually all making the same one: not positioning their infants correctly into the seat. 

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The study, which had the goal to "estimate prevalence of car safety seat (CSS) misuse for newborns on hospital discharge; and to identify potential risk and protective factors for CSS misuse," surveyed 291 parents, ages 24 to 35, as they installed and placed their newborn into the car seat while being observed by certified child passenger safety technicians.

Researchers found that nearly 95 percent of participants misused their car seats and 86 percent of parents placed their infant improperly into the seat, which could be dangerous for baby even if the car doesn't get in a crash. 

The study's author, Dr. Benjamin Hoffman from the Department of Pediatrics, School of Medicine, and Doernbecher Children's Hospital at the Oregon Health and Science University, in Portland, Oregon, explained to PopSugar that, "A number of studies have shown that an incorrect angle of recline can lead to injury to babies, especially if too upright, as the baby's head can flop forward and obstruct the airway." Additionally, he added that "having a chest clip too low can allow the baby to slump, and there have been cases of strangulation as a result."

The study found that overall 77 percent of parents made multiple errors when installing their seat -- half of participants made five or more mistakes, whereas only one-fifth made one major mistake -- and the results found that 89 percent of the errors were deemed "critical."

Car seat
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The study also noted that the most common errors were "harness and chest clip errors, incorrect recline angle, and seat belt/lower anchor use errors." And although the study found that families that worked with "a child passenger safety technician before delivery were significantly less likely to misuse their [car seats]," Hoffman tells CafeMom that if you have been putting baby into the car seat wrong, it is an understandable mistake. 

He explains that there is a good reason why parents keep making errors. "I think it happens because it turns out that car seats are really hard to use," he says. "We know they do a great job, but it's a pretty complicated process to take a car seat from a concept to production because of complex regulations and federal safety standards -- there's a ton of compliance work that needs to be done." 

But the larger problem is that "there are a lot of issues with lack of compatibility between car seats and vehicles. Not all car seats work well in all vehicles," he says. "I've been a certified car seat technician for 20 years and there are scenarios where we can't make it work. Even someone who's really experienced. There are times when we can't install a seat in a vehicle.

"We know that 75 percent of car seats have at least one critical misuse either in installation or positioning piece [of the child]. To be honest, if you were giving a test and 75 percent of the people who took it failed your test, there's probably something wrong with the test," he adds. 

Hoffman recommends that parents who want to start learning the best practices for both installing their seat and positioning their baby into the seat correctly should pay special attention to the harness straps. 

"We want to make sure that the harness straps are snug on the child," he says. "The way we define 'snug' is that the parents can't pinch any slack between their fingers if they try and do that over the child's shoulder. That is a little tighter than parents think it needs to be. It doesn't need to be super tight, just enough so there isn't any slack there." 

It's also important to make sure that the straps are in position below the shoulders. "That's a very frequent misuse. [Parents] will use either the harness slots or raise it up so that it's above the child's shoulders. And that can lead to very significant risk for injury," he explains. 

He notes that the best thing new parents can do is work with a certified car seat technician (not a firefighter or law enforcement official, he stresses, who although well-meaning might not have the proper training) before baby comes to practice their technique. However, he warns there is still room for mistakes because "without having a real-life baby there, the best we can do is have a doll and have parents adjust the straps over the doll. It turns out that dolls are not like real babies." Which means that knowing how snug the straps should be or where to adjust the harness should be placed is harder to gage until baby comes. 

"While we still know that car seats can be very difficult to use, I would suggest that parents go and play around with some different models to see what meets their needs," he recommends because he "can't say that one car seat would be safer than another. The best car seat is the one that's appropriate for the child's weight and length, that fits the vehicle, and that parents will use correctly every time."


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