But it might be your car seat knowledge that you’re taking for granted.
“Car seats are harder than people give them credit for,” said Dr. Alisa Baer, a pediatrician and nationally certified child passenger safety instructor. She’s also co-founder of The Car Seat Lady, an advocacy organization devoted to keeping kids safe in cars.
A recent study published in the Journal of Pediatrics found that there was a greater than 90 percent misuse rate on infant car seats, and it didn’t matter if the parents already had other kids or not.
“Car seats are not something people get better at with experience, like diaper changing or bottle feeding,” Baer said. “Without proper instruction, you will not improve on your own.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics has evidence-based recommendations for keeping kids safe in cars, however, most parents aren’t following them. One thing caregivers should do when installing a car seat is consult both their car seat instruction manual and vehicle owner's manual. A trained technician can also be invaluable; they should not only check your seat, but also teach you how to install it and buckle your child in properly. Here are a few more things people don’t know or frequently get wrong:
- Keep infants and toddlers rear-facing – “You want kids rear-facing until at least age 2,” Baer said. It’s state law in eight states. Keeping kids rear-facing in convertible seats until that age – and beyond, until kids meet their convertible seat’s rear-facing height or weight limit -- protects all parts of the body better. Parents eager to turn kids around because their legs are touching the back seat are often misperceiving what’s too big, as noted by a recent study in Clinical Pediatrics; rear-facing kids can sit safely and comfortably with their knees bent.
- Use tethers on your forward-facing seat -- Every forward-facing car seat comes with a tether strap. The problem is that many parents don’t find the strap -- studies show less than half use it. “Almost every vehicle made since 2000 will have tether anchors for at least three seats in the back,” Baer said. If you’re putting a forward-facing car seat in the third row of your minivan or SUV, make sure that spot has a tether anchor – as many third row spots don’t, she added.
- Make sure you’re buckling your kids tight enough -- Most parents buckle kids too loosely, and that extra slack can lead to more injuries in a crash. Also, loosen the straps each time you take your child out and tighten them when you place your kids in their seat; straps that are considered already adjusted are often too loose. Another common mistake is misplacement of the chest buckle. Position it so the top rests just under the armpits. This video shows the proper way to get kids into a harness seat.
- Don’t take kids out of boosters before it’s time – Kids need to stay in a booster seat until their seatbelt is positioned correctly on their body and their body fits properly on the vehicle seat – which usually happens about age 10 to 12, but it varies by car, position and geometry.
- Seatbelt positioning – Whether an older child is in a booster or riding with a seatbelt, make sure the belt is on properly. The lap belt should be across the lap, not the belly (otherwise all force of a crash is on the soft parts of the body, not the strong hip bones). Make sure kids aren’t putting shoulder belts under their arms or behind their backs, as that removes all protection for the head and spinal cord.
- Avoid bulky clothes in car seats –Bulky clothes (think puffy jackets or snowsuits) in car seats add “fluff,” often about 4 inches worth of slack between your child and the straps, and this looseness significantly increases risk of head and chest injury. Either remove that outerwear or seek thin, tight-fitting clothing (Here are several recommendations from Baer, who receives no kickback for product mentions.)
- Everyone wears a seatbelt! – The seatbelt-wearing rate is 90 percent for front-seat riders and 60-70 percent for backseat, Baer said. If someone is riding in the backseat without a seatbelt, the other people who have buckled up are three times more likely to die in the same crash because the unbuckled person effectively weighs several thousand pounds due to the G-forces, rather than their usual several hundred pounds.
- Avoid all distractions – It’s not an accident, it’s a crash, Baer said. “Holding the phone while driving doesn’t cause the crash – it’s the talking on and looking at the phone that distracts the driver and leads to the crash. Set your phone to drive mode, she advises. Note: Drivers need to fend off distractions from more than their phones. Playing with the radio, or using a mirror designed to see your rear-facing baby also count. Keep your mind and eyes on the road.
Iva-Marie Palmer contributes to a number of websites and is the author of three young-adult novels, 'Gabby Garcia's Ultimate Playbook' (Harper Collins), 'The End of the World As We Know It' (Alloy Entertainment/Hot Key Books) and' The Summer's (Skyscape). She loves tasting her way through markets, exploring unique bookstores and libraries, and weekends around Los Angeles with her husband and two sons. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @ivamarie.