Since September of 2002, all new car seats and most new cars have the Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children system, also known as LATCH. This system's goal is provide a more fool-proof way to install car seats. At least three out of four car seats aren't used correctly, and though I'm sure I need not say it -- a safety device used wrong isn't really that safe after all. If you don't have LATCH, like me, still read -- the top tether is still present in vehicles that are older and don't have the bottom hooks.
Want to get it right with all those straps? Read on ...
When you're installing with the LATCH, there's still a lot of similarities to installation with a seatbelt -- kids are safest rear-facing, the seat needs to be at 45 degrees for babies and up to 30 degrees for toddlers, the back and middle of the seat is the safest.
Some vehicles don't allow car seats to use the LATCH system in the middle of a row, only in the outer positions. If you CAN get a good, solid install in the middle with your seatbelt, this is still the preferred location -- LATCH is not safer than a seatbelt. The safest installation is whatever method gets you the best installation, and if you can't safely install in the middle with a belt, then outboard with LATCH is preferred. DO NOT use both LATCH and a seatbelt -- it's one or the other.
The top tether's possible locations and the LATCH hook in the crease of the seat.
The top tether's possible locations and the LATCH hook in the crease of the seat.Your seat will have a strap with a hook/clip on the end, near the belt paths. On infant seats, sometimes it's on the bottom of the base. Each brand looks a little bit different, but they all work the same. Put the seat where you want it, and feel down in the crack of the seat for a square-shaped metal loop. Loosen the LATCH straps on the seat, and hook both ends to a LATCH hook. Now, just like with a seatbelt install, put your weight into the seat, and pull on the straps until the seat doesn't move more than 1" at the place where the straps go through. Done! Usually there's a button release on the hooks when you need to take it out. That's really it with LATCH. See? Easy.
Next is the top tether, which is another strap, but at the top of the seat to help prevent forward and side-to-side movement. This hooks to another location in your vehicle. If rear-facing (and you have a Britax or Sunshine Kids seat only), hook this to a tether anchor on the floor, NOT under the seat the car seat is installed on. Sometimes you need a "D-Ring," and this will go around the metal bar that is bolted to the floor of the seat in front of the car seat. If forward-facing (with any seat), the hook can be on the ceiling, the floor, or sometimes the back "shelf" in sedans. Hook this strap there with the open part of the clip towards the floor if on the floor, ceiling if on the ceiling, pull tight. Call your manufacturer and ask about retrofitting a top tether anchor if your car doesn't have one -- it's free for many models, and for those that aren't, I paid $11 for mine.
Still confused? Check out these fantastic videos from Britax:
Do you use the LATCH system?
*Note: This is general mom advice. Always consult your manual and a car seat expert near you for more help. Car seat safety is too important to not get right.