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Which car seat mistake are you making?

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  February 5, 2014 09:42 AM

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img8.jpgThe Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) just came out with a report on child passenger safety--and for the most part, the news is good: deaths from motor vehicle crashes in children 12 years and younger went down 43 percent between 2002 and 2011.

However, more than 9000 children died in crashes during those years. That's way too many lives lost. 

Along with driving safely (follow traffic rules, don't drink and drive, don't text and drive, limit other distractions), the best way to keep children safe in the car is to use age- and size-appropriate child safety restraints. And while that sounds obvious and simple, it turns out that for many parents, it isn't obvious or simple. Lots and lots of parents make mistakes (I've made some myself!). 

Are you making any of these car seat mistakes?

Not using one. Of the children under 12 who died in crashes in 2011, 1 in 3 wasn't buckled up. The number was higher (45 percent) in 8 to 12-year-olds. This is one corner nobody should cut. Buckle up your kids. In Massachusetts, it's the law (I wish it was the law in every state!)

Not installing it correctly. This is where I've screwed up. Despite the many, many years of school I've had, I've sometimes wondered if an engineering degree would have been a better idea when I've tried to install a car seat. Here are some common errors:
  • Not installing it tightly enough. It shouldn't move more than an inch either way.
  • Using both the seatbelt and the LATCH system to hold it in. It's tempting, but it's not a good idea.
  • Not using the top tether. It matters.
  • Installing it at the wrong angle. That matters too. 
  • Not following instructions exactly (that whole lack of engineering degree problem).
There's help available. Check out this tool to find the child safety seat inspection station nearest to you.

Leaving the straps too loose. We've all been there. You have Baby all bundled up in his new thick snowsuit, so you loosen the straps...and then the next day it's warmer so you put on a less bulky jacket--but leave the straps as they were, because it's a pain to fix it and Baby looks more comfortable anyway. Bad plan. The seat doesn't work as well that way. 

Adding padding, toys, and other stuff to the seat. Padding may seem like a good idea, but it's not always safe to add it (if you feel like your baby doesn't fit correctly in the seat, talk to your doctor). And while mirrors and toys might help you see, or keep Baby occupied, they can become projectiles in a crash.

Turning them around too early. Babies and toddlers should be rear-facing until they turn 2 (or until they have outgrown the rear-facing seat). It's safer.

Keeping them in the infant seat too long. I've talked to parents who didn't realize that the convertible seats (the next one up from the infant seat) can be turned rear-facing. Once your child is taller or heavier than what the seat is designed to hold, you need to get a new seat.

Putting them in a booster seat too soon. It's tempting to take them out, and kids enjoy being in a Big Kid seat. Somewhere between 5 and 7 they will be ready for a booster seat, depending on their size and the car seat you have, but don't rush it. When you do change to a booster seat, read and follow the instructions carefully. 

Ditching the booster seat too soon. Once kids get to elementary school, the booster seat can feel like a "baby" thing--and can be a logistical drag for playdates and carpools. So lots of parents don't use them consistently--or stop using them entirely. But before kids are at least 57 inches tall, the seat belt may not adequately restrain them in a crash. Safety is always more important than convenience. Here in Massachusetts, the law is that kids need to be in a booster seat until they are at least 8 years old or over 57 inches tall.

Putting the kid in the front seat. Yes, lots of us have memories of sitting in the front seat as kids--but the back seat is safer. No child younger than 13 should be in the front seat--and you should never put a rear-facing car seat in a seat with an active air bag.

For more information, visit the CDC's Motor Vehicle Safety page or the great Parents Central page of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Check out this infographic for more info on what seat you should use:

img7 (1).jpg

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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