Car Seat Safety: Toddler Seat Do's and Don'ts

car seat safety

Photo by DawnMarie1018

I picked up a basic, bare-bones car seat for our now 4-year-old daughter for about $60, but I know moms who have spent upward of $250 for a toddler seat! I always wondered -- and worried -- whether my daughter would be safer in a more expensive seat that I can't afford. (Speaking of which, enter for your chance to win a free car seat!)

But Kristy Arbogast, PhD, director of engineering at the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, reassured me about this and other common mom worries. Though some pricier seats have features that make for easier installs, even the less fancy ones meet federal safety guidelines.

"The best child seat," Arbogast says, "is the seat that gets a tight fit in your car, fits and is comfortable for your child, and allows you to install it correctly every time."


I asked Arbogast to share some of the most important things for you and I to keep in mind when installing and using our seats. The first thing we should do, she said, is click on Keeping Kids Safe During Crashes. This is an awesome site with instructional car seat videos for children of every stage. It should answer most of your basic questions.

After watching the toddler video, I discovered my daughter's shoulder straps were totally wrong -- she's forward facing now, so the straps should be above her shoulders, not below like they were. Thank goodness I checked.

Here are some more crucial reminders:

Pick the safest position Simply put, that's the place in your own car where the seat has the tightest fit -- side or middle.

You may have heard that the middle is safer, and that is true. Research shows that children seated in the rear center have a 43 percent lower chance of injury than children seated in either of the rear side positions. But that's only when the seat is put in correctly with the snuggest fit. If you can attach the seat more securely in a side position, or you have more than one kid and center seating isn't possible, you can still feel comfortable that your child is protected in her tightly installed side seat.

Keep your child rear facing longer Yes, there are strong opinions about this on CafeMom, but the facts are the facts: Crash statistics show your rear-facing child has a lower risk of serious head and spinal cord injuries. "This may be until 30 or 35 pounds, and likely is well past the traditional "1 year and 20 pounds" rule," says Arbogast.

Of course, every seat has a weight limit. If your car seat manual says it's only good in the rear facing position until your child is 35 pounds, and your child is over 40 pounds, you'll have to switch them.

Use the LATCH when possible LATCH and seatbelts are BOTH equally safe when used correctly. Again, it's the tight fit that counts.

Many technicians do advise using LATCH over seatbelts when possible, however, because parents have a better chance of getting them in correctly and more securely with that system.

Just don't use the LATCH and seat belt together -- your child is NOT doubly safe; one system may interfere with the other in a crash, so it's actually more dangerous for your child.

Remember the tether! These straps, which hook to anchors above or behind the back seat, prevent the top of the car seat -- and your child's precious noggin -- from jetting forward in a crash. They also keep your child and her seat from rotating toward  the object smashing into your car.

If your car doesn't have a tether hooks, it is a good idea to put one in. A dealer for your model car should be able to handle that for a low cost. Just don't attach the tether to some other hook that is not an official tether anchor (such as a cargo tie-down, etc.).

Bottom line -- Read your auto manuals and car seat manuals for weight limits and other rules. This is just a general guide -- you should consult a technician to help you through the install, if possible.

You can also check out the Car Seat Safety Guide from the American Academy of Pediatrics for additional advice.

++Do you follow ALL of these car seat rules? Why or why not?

Check back here and throughout the parenting blogs all this week for more car seat safety chat.

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