How to Install Your Baby Car Seat Properly

Do you know the ins and outs of properly installing a car seat for your child? According to one study, up to 95 percent of parents install infant car seats incorrectly (1). Apparently, installation is not as easy as we all thought.

The thing is, car seats for babies come with various recommendations and restrictions. Plus, cars are different and you need to know the best way to fit a car seat into your specific car.

Besides that, there is much more information you need to know. This is exactly what we are going to tackle in this article. Read on to find out the best way to install your car seat properly and ensure safety for your baby.

Table of Contents

    Where Should the Car Seat Go?

    The first thing you should do is check out your car’s manual. Look for the child passenger safety section to see exactly where a child seat should be installed. Read the car seat manual as well to find out what should go where.

    According to a study, the safest position for your baby car seat is the center of the second row (2). Even though head-on collisions are common accidents, side impacts can sometimes be worse. Having a baby in the middle protects them from both front and side accidents.

    However, this is not always possible, especially when you have more than one child. Apart from that, not all vehicles have the necessary “LATCH” anchors in the middle seat (although most car seats can be installed with a seat belt instead). The LATCH system stands for “Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children” (3).

    It was designed to make car seat installation easier for parents. Most car models from 2003 and onward have these anchors.

    Always remember that the best place to put your car seat is where your vehicle permits it and you can get a proper installation. A car seat placed in the middle seat will not be safer if you cannot get a good installation in that seat.
    Headshot of Kristen Gardiner, CPST

    Editor's Note:

    Kristen Gardiner, CPST

    Driver or Passenger Side: Which Is Better?

    In an accident, the driver instinctively protects his or her side. And you won’t need to walk around the car for the baby if you are both on the same side.

    However, it’ll be harder to check up on them when they are directly behind you. Of course, safety should come first, right?

    What If There’s More Than One?

    If you have two kids, you can place the newborn in the center position as they are more vulnerable. If it’s not possible to put two baby seats next to each other, use the outside seats instead. Consider which child takes longer to buckle in and out, then put them on the driver’s side.

    If you have three kids, fitting three car seats in the back seat could get tricky. You can get narrow car seats that will fit your car. Do keep in mind that children below the age of 13 should always sit in the rear seat (4).

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    What Direction Should the Seat Face?

    Keep them rear-facing until at least 2-years-old or until they reach the weight or height limit. All car seats come with set limits, so check your car seat manual for that.

    Infant car seats generally support up to 22 pounds or more. Rear-facing weight limits for convertible seats could be anything from 35 to 50 pounds.

    Infant carriers could support up to 22 pounds or more. Convertible seats could be anything from 35 to 50 pounds.

    Many parents feel kids are at risk of leg injuries while rear-facing. However, approximately only 0.1 percent of rear-facing kids suffer lower-extremity injuries in car accidents (5). Kids are also quite flexible and rear-facing is not usually uncomfortable for them.

    They are at a greater risk of nearly all types of injury when facing forward. When an accident occurs, a child’s feet come in contact with the front seat, and the head and neck are violently thrown forward.

    Stay Away From The Front

    Furthermore, you should never place your rear-facing baby seat in the front. This is the most dangerous place for them.

    Airbags deploy at a dangerous speed and could severely injure or kill your child (6). Yes, it’s possible in some older vehicles for you to switch off the airbag with a key. But any other types of airbags pose too great of a risk due to the possibility of malfunction. Airbag sensors are not 100% accurate and can still deploy in a crash.

    At What Angle Should the Seat Recline?

    Rear-facing car seats should be installed at specific angles depending on the age of the baby and what direction the seat is facing. All seats come with an angle indicator, though what they look like will vary. Some come with one or two lines which you keep parallel to the ground to achieve the correct angle, and some have a bubble or ball indicator which will tell you if the angle is within an acceptable range.

    The goal of the angle indicator is to keep car seats with newborns at 45 degrees. If too flat, they might slide out of the straps. However, if too upright, their head might flop forward, which could limit their breathing.

    If you are having trouble installing your car seat at a 45-degree angle, many car seat manufacturers allow the use of a rolled towel to be placed under the car seat to help properly position it. Always read your car seat manual because not all seats allow this, and installation instructions can vary. Older kids can recline slightly more upright at 35 degrees (7). Ensure your car is on level ground so you get the angle right.

    What Installation Methods Are Available?

    There are two options for a safe car seat installation — the LATCH system and the seat belts.

    LATCH is not necessarily a safer method because the seat belt works just as well. Using both the LATCH anchors and the seat belt does not make it safer either. You will need to choose one or the other because rarely will you find a car seat that allows both installation methods at the same time. Your manual should tell you what is permitted.

    LATCH Method

    Most car manufacturers place two LATCH anchors on each of the outside seats and not the center (8). The LATCH system (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) consists of two main parts: lower anchors (metal bars in between the back and bottom seat cushions) and tether anchors (metal hook or ring behind or above the vehicle seat, used to secure the tether strap for forward-facing car seats).

    Some cars may have more than two pairs of anchors, which is why you need to refer to your car manual. Here is a step-by-step guide for you:

    1. Locate your lower anchor strap(s). Your seat base should come with a strap with two hooks which attaches to the lower anchors on both sides. Route the LATCH strap through the belt path for the direction the seat is facing, leaving no twists.
    2. Locate your lower anchors. They could be hiding in the crease of the seat so check for a button or label close by.
    3. Once you find your anchors, push in the connectors until they click in place.
    4. Pull to ensure they are safely attached and tighten to remove excess webbing while applying pressure to the car seat or base with your hand.
    5. Check your angle indicator and adjust accordingly.
    6. Test for tightness by holding the seat near the belt path and giving it a tug (use the same amount of force as a firm handshake). Ensure there is less than 1” of movement from side-to-side or front-to-back. Adjust if necessary.

    Seat Belts

    It is important that you learn how to do this. Not all cars have the LATCH system, and LATCH systems also have weight limits which you cannot exceed (check your car manual and car seat manual to find this information). But all vehicles, including taxis, should have seat belts and they can be used for any weight. This method also allows you to install an infant car seat without the base.

    Regardless of which car you use, you can always assure your child’s safety.

    1. Start by routing the belt through the right belt path for the direction you want the seat to face.
    2. Ensure there are no twists, then buckle it.
    3. Lock the seat belt by pulling the belt all the way out until it locks and slowly feeds the webbing of the seat belt back in. If your car seat comes with a lock-off, you can use this to lock the seat belt instead (find directions in your manual).
    4. Pull the seatbelt with your hand close to the buckle to remove excess webbing and apply pressure to the seat with your hand while tightening the belt. Gently release the seat belt once you have tightened it.
    5. Check your angle indicator and adjust accordingly.
    6. Test for tightness by holding the seat near the belt path and giving it a tug (use the same amount of force as a firm handshake). Ensure there is less than 1” of movement from side-to-side or front-to-back. Adjust if necessary.

    Handy Car Seat Tips

    • Is it okay for baby to sleep in the car seat? A quick supervised nap during a short trip is absolutely fine. However, car seats are generally not designed for that purpose (9). If left unsupervised, the baby could be at risk of death through suffocation or strangulation.
    • Is it okay to use your baby car seat in the shopping cart? While car seats do feature a locking mechanism, it is not intended for use on top of a shopping cart. As convenient as this may be, this makes the cart top-heavy and could potentially tip it over. You can instead place the car seat in the basket of the shopping cart or wear your baby in a carrier.
    • Can you use the baby car seat on a flight? Most baby seats are certified to be used on a plane. The FAA recommends that infants or children below 40 pounds should use a child safety seat on a flight (10). You’ll just use the plane seat belt to secure it in place.
    • What’s the problem with bulky clothes? It is recommended you don’t strap in your child wearing bulky clothes. They make it hard to tighten the straps and will compromise their safety. During cold weather, try dressing your baby in a thin fleece and covering them with a blanket after you strap them in.
    • What to do if you are unsure of your installation: If you don’t feel confident about your installation, check in with your local car seat inspection station. The National Child Passenger Safety Certification Program is likely to have a certified technician who will help you, often at no charge (11).
    • Always use the tether for forward-facing seats: Regardless of the installation method you choose for forward-facing seats, always attach your tether strap to your vehicle’s tether anchor. These will offer maximum safety and secure the seat in place. The tether is designed to reduce forward movements during a crash.
    • When should you switch to a booster seat? Ideally, your child should stay in a harnessed car seat until they outgrow it by height or weight. Many car seats allow a child to remain harnessed until 65 pounds, so this could be for quite some time. Experts strongly recommend waiting until at least age five so your child is mature enough to sit in the proper position for the entire car ride. This is one milestone you don’t want to rush. Your child will need to remain in a booster seat until they can pass the five-step test, which typically is when they reach about 4’9” in height.
    • Never use a seat that doesn’t fit your child: Often you will find 2-year-old children strapped to an infant-only seat. Even worse, you’ll see a 2-year-old in a booster seat. These are both dangerous mistakes. It is imperative that you follow the height and weight recommendations of your car seat, so you can ensure your child is protected.
    • Don’t get creative with your car seat: You might not believe this, but parents have used duct tape and bungee cords to secure the car seat. These methods cannot withstand crash forces and are extremely dangerous.
    • Be wary of hand-me-downs: This applies to second-hand car seats sold online. Car seats have expiration dates and technology and safety features improve by the year. Unless you still have the manual and you are sure it was not in a crash, an old seat is not worth your child’s life.
    • Always use the harness straps correctly: Harness straps should always be at or below the shoulders when securing a rear-facing baby. They should be at or above the shoulders while securing a forward-facing child. Besides that, always ensure they are snug enough. You should not be able to pinch any slack in the strap near the child’s shoulders (12).
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    Now You Know

    With all the pointers we’ve provided, we hope you’re feeling more confident and up to the task at hand.

    Now that we’ve explained how to install your child’s car seat, it’s time for you to put it into practice. If you do things right, it’s not that hard. Once you’ve done it a few times it will become second nature.

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