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.

car seat safety


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Toddl... ToddlerBrain82

Thank you!! What a great article, and thanks for talking about extended rear facing!!

heydo... heydooney

I forgot about the shoulder straps when I had to turn my son around! Thanks, I will fix that right away!

smich... smichellem

Thank you. My little one is now a year and right around 20 pounds. Even though that could keep her rear facing though, her legs are clearly too long to be safe rear facing any longer. It's been a while since I have gone through this phase so I am very happy you provided this info and the links. Will be doing the research today and find the right toddler seat this weekend!

babyb... babyboomboom

YAY for talking about ERF!!  Great article!

JPsMo... JPsMommy605

I kept my son extended rear-facing only for a few extra months - I turned his seat forward at 16 months because we took a long trip to Oregon and I wanted him to start seeing where we were going.  Whenever you change your carseat position (from rear to forward or whatever), always READ the manual - all the safety information is right there - this is why it's recommended to keep them manual with the car seat (mine even had a place to keep it).  Then things like adjusting the shoulder straps would be part of the process.  I recently moved my son up to a booster seat and now he sits on the side instead of the middle - I only have one working seatbelt left in the back of the car, otherwise he'd be in the middle.

rina16 rina16

YAY for ERF!!! My 18 mo old is still RF!!! Yes, I know all the safety rules, because I talk and listen to the techs. I am going to become one myself this summer.

hurle... hurleydoll18

YAY for ERF as well!  My 17 month old, 33 inch and 28lb son is happily and safely still rear facing and will continue to do so until he reaches 35lbs.  He has long legs and they hang all over the back seat but it is not unsafe and it is not uncomfortable for him.  Thanks for mentioning that it is best

Toddl... ToddlerBrain82

There's a cheesy little line I've learned here at the Cafe regarding extended rear facing.

Broken leg, cast it.

Broken neck, casket.

My little boy was rear facing until he was over 18 months old. Now that I've learned more about the advantages of ERF, our next baby will be rear facing even longer.

momof... momof2luvsshoes

Scrunched legs are not as uncomfortable for a child as you'd think.  Legs touching the back of the seat is just fine.  My 34 month old is rear facing and he loves it.  I know not every child is like that.  He is 29 lbs and 34" tall. 

ToddlerBrain82:  You hit the nail on the head.  It is a somewhat hard to swallow "cheesy line" (LOL) but it is true nonetheless.

holli... hollinicole

I never heard of ERF till getting on cafemom, and ever since my DD 2 has been doing so. sad to say she is right at 30 lbs now so want be much longer, but then she will still be harnessed up to 65 lbs. I want my DD to be safe and if I have to spend a little more money to keep her safe in the care then I will. Now people call me a car seat crazy mom lol am always telling and fixing peoples seat when I see things wrongs in hopes that it save a child's life.

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