Baby on Board: 5 Common Car Seat Mistakes

Most People Get Car Seat Installation Wrong

You know that buying a car seat is one of the most important purchases you can make for your young child. In the event of a car accident, that seat may make all the difference in the world.

So after researching safety ratings and customer reviews, you buy what you feel is the best car seat. You read the instruction manual, install the seat, and strap your child in for the first time. Everything seems secure, so you assume that you've done everything correctly and are good to go.

Unfortunately, if you're like 75% of parents, you've made a mistake somewhere along the way. But don't be discouraged – knowing some common car seat mistakes can help you avoid them, and there are trained professionals in many communities who can make sure your seat is installed correctly.

Read on for five common car seat mistakes and how to fix them.

Common Car Seat Mistakes

Mistake #1: Choosing the Wrong Seat

car seat closeup

There are a lot of car seat options out there – infant seats, booster seats, convertible seats, rear facing, forward facing – the list goes on.

Each state has its own car seat requirements, but we suggest doing some additional research on manufacturer safety seat requirements and health and safety organization recommendations. Here are some helpful links:

Also make sure you check the safety seat's manual and track your child's growth so you know when it's time to change to a different seat.

Finally, never use a hand-me-down car seat or buy one from a consignment shop. You can't know for sure whether or not the seat has been involved in an accident, and car seats usually have an expiration date six years after manufacturing.

Mistake #2: Improper Installation

installing a car seat

It's a simple fact that the vast majority of car seats are installed incorrectly. According to safety experts, some of the most common mistakes include: not routing seatbelts properly, using both the lower anchors and the LATCH system, forgetting to use the tether, and not placing enough weight on the seat as it is being installed.

Here are some tips to keep in mind:

1. Read the car seat manual AND your car's manual. Both will have important information for proper car seat installation.

2. If you are using the seat belt installation method, see whether or not the belts are self-locking. If they aren't, read how to use either the metal locking clip that came with your seat or the seat belt lock-off that may be built into the car seat.

3. Put as much of your weight as possible on the car seat as you install it. For rear-facing seats, lean your stomach against the back of the car seat. For forward-facing models, put both of your knees on the seat as you secure it. This is probably easiest to do with two people.

4. After the seat is installed, try to move it. It shouldn't move more than 1 inch in any direction.

Keep your car seat manual stored near the car seat so you can reference it if necessary.

Mistake #3: Turning a Rear-Facing Seat Around Too Soon

forward-facing car seat

In 2011, the AAP updated its recommendation on when kids should go from a rear-facing seat to a forward-facing one. Its previous guideline was that children could be switched at age one or at 20 pounds. Now, parents are instructed to wait until a child is two or until he exceeds the height or weight limit of the car seat.

Safety experts say this is because before age two, the bones that protect the spinal cord are still developing. This means that the safest position for babies is rear facing, where their back (which is the strongest part of the body) can absorb the impact. A child who stays rear facing until the age of two is 75% less likely to die or be seriously injured in the event of an accident.

Mistake #4: Not Fitting the Harness Properly

baby wearing coat in car seat

This mistake is usually born out of good intentions – parents think that looser straps make kids more comfortable. However, the harness should fit snugly to keep kids as safe as possible (and if you follow the proper guidelines, it won't be uncomfortable).

There are a few simple rules:

  • You should only be able to fit one finger between your child's collarbone and the shoulder strap.
  • Kids shouldn't wear puffy clothing (like heavy winter jackets) in their car seat.
  • The chest clip should sit at armpit level.

Mistake #5: Graduating From the Booster Too Soon

kids no booster

Kids should be a booster seat until they're 4'9". Period. This makes some children unhappy, but you shouldn't budge from this rule. Almost 90% of parents move their kids out of a booster seat before they should, and this puts kids in a dangerous position.

Seat belts are designed for people who are at least 4'9" tall, and a seat belt that doesn't fit properly can lead to internal organ injuries, spinal cord damage, or serious head injuries. If your child is tall enough to use an adult seat belt, make sure she doesn't slouch or put the shoulder strap behind her head.

There is Professional (and Free) Help

Serious car accidents involving children can be absolutely devastating, but a properly installed and used safety seat can mean the difference between a close call and a tragedy. Even if you feel confident about your safety seat knowledge, there's no shame in asking a professional for help. Communities across the country have certified child passenger safety technicians who can take a look at your handiwork or install your seat for you. Just use this car seat inspection station locator to find the tech nearest you.

Defective Car Seats

Even if you take all of the proper precautions and install your car seat correctly, you can't prepare for everything. It's possible for any type of product to be defective, and this includes car seats. If you suspect that a child you know has been injured by a defective car seat, feel free to get in touch with us. We're available 24/7.

Sources: “8 Car Seat Mistakes Most Parents are Making.” The Bump. November 10, 2015.

“10 Common Car Seat Mistakes Parents Make & How to Fix Them.” The Stir. July 7, 2014.

“Car Seat Mistakes You May Be Making.” Parenting. September 2011.

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