Are you sure you installed your car seat correctly?

There have been times, when I’ve been trying to install a car seat for one of my kids, when I’ve wished I had an engineering degree instead of a medical degree.

I mean, honestly. Each one is different. The instructions don’t always make sense. The pictures don’t seem to correlate with the seat—or my car. There always seems to be a strap I can’t figure out how to adjust—or how to use at all. When I finally figure out how to put the seat belt through, it always seems to end up too loose—or too short. And once I think I have it right and put the kid in, either the straps are swimming on him—or they are so tight I can’t buckle them.

And this all seems to happen when I’m running late.

So I wasn’t even vaguely surprised when Safe Kids USA released a study showing that thousands of parents not only struggle when it comes to installing car seats, but do it wrong.

The study was based on 79,000 checklists from child safety seat inspections. You could argue that people going to inspections are more likely to have made mistakes—after all, they went for help. But many of the people who go to these inspections are highly motivated parents, grandparents, and other caregivers who have installed the seats carefully but want to be sure they have it right.

Here are some of the findings of the study:

  • Less than a third of the forward-facing car seats were installed using the top tether, which hooks to an anchor in the car and helps hold the seat back. Of those that used the tether, only 59% were using it right.
  • Using the seatbelts correctly to secure the seat was tough for people, too. Only about a third of the infant seats had correct seatbelt use.  That rose to just under half for forward-facing seats with a harness, and just over half for rear-facing convertible seats.
  • The lower anchor was used correctly about half of the time.
  • Getting the harness right was tough too. Only 28% of the infant seats without a base had the harness right. For other kinds of car seats, about half had it right.

It’s tempting, especially when you are in a rush, to say: hey, it’s good enough. Maybe the seat is a little wiggly or the harness is a little loose, maybe I’ve got this thing here that looks like it should be attached to something but I can’t figure out what—but they are in a car seat, that’s what matters, right?

Here’s the thing: car crashes are the leading cause of death for children ages 3-14. Car seats can save lives—but they don’t work anywhere near as well if you don’t install them right.

I talked to Lindsey Elliot, a great nurse who is the outreach coordinator for the Trauma Center at Children’s Hospital Boston. Here are her top tips for parents when it comes to car seat installation:

  • Plan ahead. Don’t wait until the moment you have to put the child in the car seat to try to install it.
  • Check out the Safe Kids USA website as well as the website of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for great information on installing car seats as well as information on car seat inspection opportunities in your area. (If you live in Massachusetts, the website can help too).
  • When buying a new car seat, ask if you can try installing it first—many stores have demo models. While theoretically car seats should work in any car, certain car seats can be tough to get into certain cars (read your car’s manual before you get started).
  • If you are going to a car seat inspection, don’t just wait for the technicians to install the seat for you. Try it yourself. Some day you may need to reinstall it, and you want to know how!
  • Car seats have expiration dates! They are usually good for about six years. And they shouldn’t be used if they have been in an accident.  As tempting as it may be to use a hand-me-down seat from a friend or buy one cheaply from a yard sale, don’t do it unless you know exactly how old it is, are sure it hasn’t been in any accidents, and it comes with the manual.
  • If your child has special health care needs, talk to your doctor about how this may affect your car seat needs.

Bottom line: take the extra time to make sure your child’s car seat is installed properly. There’s help out there. And it could save your child’s life.

Do you live north of Boston? The Injury Prevention Program is excited to announce that it’s expanding its Car Seat Safety services to Boston Children’s North in Peabody this month. They’ll be kicking off the expansion with a Car Seat Check Event at BCN on Wednesday, September 21, from 1 to 3 p.m., followed by regularly scheduled Community Fitting Stations on alternate Fridays.

Staff members from BCN and Pediatric Health Care Associates are certified to install and educate families with car seat needs on the North shore. BCN will host Community Fitting Stations by appointment, from 1 to 3 p.m., on the following Fridays:

  • September 30
  • October 14
  • October 28

Families can make an appointment by calling the Car Seat Program at 617-355-7332.

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