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How to Clean Baby Car Seats

Medically Reviewed by Kristen Gardiner, CPST
Here are some tips on the best way to tackle the mess that is your baby’s car seat.

Aren’t kids messy? I think that’s something we can all agree on. Between food stains, markers, crumbs, and spills among other things, baby car seats can get pretty dirty.

They can have epic accidents and before you have a chance to pull over, it’s super gross and you can’t help but cringe. The question that follows right after that is “How do I even clean this up?”

Well, with kids, that’s possibly a question you ask yourself constantly. If the latest crime scene is the car seat, worry not because we’re here to help you out. There are several ways you can get it looking brand new again, so read on to find out.

Where Do You Begin?

In an ideal and convenient world, some of these messes would just happen at home, where it’s easier to deal with the situation. But it’s generally when you’re well on your way that you hear the ominous retching sound.

To make you feel better, regardless of how messy things get, one day you’ll laugh about it. Well, maybe not now because it’s bound to happen again, but your time will come, that’s certain. Until then, here are the first two things you need to do:

1. Move Fast for Better Results

If you let stains and spills sit for a long time, removing them successfully will be next to impossible. Dry messes can sometimes wait, but wet messes cannot. You are probably going to take care of the baby first and ensure they are alright.

Your second priority should be wiping off anything you can with a rag or wipes as soon as possible. If you don’t have the time, at least presoak the seat cover. This will prevent the spill from drying up and setting in.

2. Check the Baby Car Seat Manual

If this is your first time cleaning the baby’s car seat, you’ll want to become familiar with the manual. While most car seats will come with similar materials, you don’t want to miss any specific cleaning instructions from the manufacturer.

The car seat manual should come with some helpful leads for all the cleaning methods you can use. Can’t find your car seat manual? Most manufacturers have them available online. Go to their website and find the model of your car seat (this can be found on a sticker on your car seat if you aren’t sure), and the manual should be linked nearby!

This is the most important step because you can mess things up if you miss anything. You might render it unusable by using the wrong cleaning products or method. For example, it’s tempting to get the pressure washer out and blast away all that gunk, but this can actually damage parts of your car seat. With correct instructions, it will be easier to get the job done safely.

Each time my husband and I have to clean a car seat, we are determined about not eating food in the car ever again. But that doesn’t last and it’s not an option because you change your mind sooner than later. Road rage is real when you have kids and the only way to keep them off your back is with snacks.

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Gather Your Cleaning Supplies

For most baby car seats, you’ll need the same supplies to get started:

  • Baby wipes and a soft towel for removing debris.
  • A sponge for wet spot cleaning.
  • If you have a small handheld vacuum, this will come in handy.
  • A small bucket of warm water.
  • A gentle soap such as Dawn Dish Soap or Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Wash.

1. Wipe Off What You Can

Before you get down to cleaning out the nooks and crannies, pick up as much solid debris as you can. While it may seem you’re picking away for hours, it’s going to be much easier to clean the seat when you do this.

You can use baby wipes or a simple cleaning towel for this step. If you have a handheld vacuum, even better.

2. Remove the Cover and Padding

Take off the cover and any removable padding from the seat for easier cleaning. Most car seats come with covers that can easily be removed. Start from the top and remove any clips or buttons used to fasten it in place.

Many fabric covers can be washed on the delicate cycle of the washer with cold water. Double-check your manual to be sure this is permitted. Use a mild detergent and ensure it is thoroughly rinsed. If you use the washing machine, avoid using the dryer. Putting any car seat parts in the dryer can compromise their integrity.

If the cover can’t go in the machine, use warm water to clean yours by hand. Use the sponge to clean the spots and stains till they fade. Use the mild soap on visible stains, then rub gently using a circular motion (1).

3. Clean the Harness and Buckles

With the warm water and gentle soap, wipe down the harness as much as you can. You might be tempted to try a more heavy-duty cleaner like Clorox, but that is not recommended.

Abrasive cleaners could damage the webbing of the harness and compromise the seat. They may irritate your baby’s skin as well. Even natural cleaners like vinegar should not be used with car seats, so stick with mild soap.

The buckles are pretty straightforward to clean. Generally you should be able to swish them around in water through them to dislodge any debris that may be stuck in the grooves and little corners. Be sure to check your manual for more specific instructions, as each manufacturer has different rules on how to clean the buckles.

4. Clean the Frame

The base and frame are the easiest parts of the car seat to clean. If you are dealing with a dry mess, a vacuum cleaner is your best bet here. Then use soap and warm water to clean the entire frame, wiping it down with a clean cloth afterward to remove any soap residue.

5. Air Dry the Seat Before Assembly

Once you are done cleaning, place the car seat where it can air dry completely. Air drying in the sun will help get rid of any odor left behind and leave it smelling fresh. If you have a removable cover, hang it to dry and leave it be.

If the cover does not come off, leave the entire car seat in the sun to dry out. It’ll probably take more time than it would if it was disassembled, but better than leaving it to collect mold or mildew. It’s advisable to leave the car seat for a few hours or up to a whole day to allow it to dry fully.

If you are still having problems with odor, try going through the washing process again and drying everything in the sun. If the smell still persists, contact the car seat manufacturer for guidance or information about replacement parts.
Headshot of Kristen Gardiner, CPST

Editor's Note:

Kristen Gardiner, CPST

6. Reassemble the Seat

Once everything is completely dry, reassemble the car seat and put it back where it belongs. If you took note of everything while disassembling, reassembly should be a breeze.

You can easily refer to your manual if you are unsure about how you did it. You must ensure the cover fits right. The straps especially need to go back in the right order so you don’t compromise your child’s safety or comfort.

Preventative Cleaning Tips

It’s almost impossible to keep your baby’s car seat clean at all times. However, there are several things you can do to protect it and avoid catastrophes. These points have come in handy for me over the years:

  • Keep baby wipes in the car within reach: This may seem obvious, but instead of fumbling through your bag, keep a pack in a specific location. You can also encourage your kids to use them and let them know where they are.
  • Get a pack of disposable vomit bags: These help a lot as they are odorless and leakproof. They are inexpensive and have been a lifesaver for me, especially on long summer vacation road trips.
  • Use snack containers to prevent spills: You can get travel-friendly containers for your kids’ age. Ensure they’re easy to open and close for your child.
  • Bring a cleaning kit for road trips: I like to bring along a bag with a towel or paper towels, bottled water, and a travel-size baby wash so you can spot clean on-the-go until you reach your destination.

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Medically Reviewed by

Kristen Gardiner, CPST

Kristen Gardiner, CPST is a writer, wife, and mother to three boys. Kristen became certified as a Child Passenger Safety Technician by Safe Kids Worldwide in 2015 and loves to volunteer and help educate parents about car seat safety. She has a passion for all things related to child safety.