Believe it or not, four out of five car seats are used improperly. This estimate by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is derived from the results of numerous checks conducted by safety experts at supermarkets, shopping malls, and other locations.
A 1999 study by the National SAFE KIDS Campaign of 17,500 child seats presented by parents at safety-check events found 85 percent were used incorrectly.
Why all this misuse? One reason is that not every seat is compatible with every car. There are more than 100 models of car seats, 300 models of passenger vehicles and a variety of seat belt systems! In 2002, all new vehicles will be required to have a universal anchor system, which will make it possible for all car seats to be installed the same way in all vehicles. The new equipment began appearing on the 2000 cars.
Installing the Seat
Don't rely on store clerks to instruct you. Before you buy a seat, read the manual and the car owner's manual and then test the seat out by installing it in your car to make sure it's compatible. If it's a convertible seat, be certain you can install it in both the forward- and rear-facing positions.
One of the most common installation mistakes is failure to fasten the seat into the car tightly. The rule of thumb is that the seat shouldn't move more than an inch from side to side or forward and back. Make sure you thread the seat belt through the seat's openings correctly and pull it tight by pressing your knee into the upholstery of the seat of the car and applying force on the belt.
Some seat belts will not secure a car seat unless you use a locking clip. A clip should have come with the car seat when you bought it, but if you need one they are available from stores where you buy seats. Vehicles made after September 1, 1996, do not need clips because they must have belts with locking or switchable retractors.
Certain cars made by Ford, Toyota, and Nissan prior to 1995 have seat belts that need a “heavy-duty” locking clip. A standard clip is not strong enough to hold the belts in place with a child safety seat. You can get the clip from these auto dealers.
“Installing” Your Baby
A key mistake here is leaving too much play in the harness that holds the baby into the seat. It's tight enough if you can slip no more than one finger between the harness and the baby's collar bone. The harness retainer clip, which pulls the two straps together on the baby's chest, should be positioned at armpit level.
If your newborn slouches in his seat because of his small size, you can roll up receiving blankets or diapers and wedge them between the side of his body and the wall of the car seat. Or buy a cushiony liner made for this purpose.
If the weather is cold, put a blanket over the baby after you buckle her into the seat. If you wrap her up beforehand, the bulkiness of the blanket could prevent the harness from fitting snugly.
You'll need to adjust the height of the harness as baby grows taller. Carefully follow the manufacturer's instructions on proper installation and use, and check the seat periodically to make sure it still fits the baby properly.