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How to Install an Infant Car Seat: Do It Properly

Medically Reviewed by Kristen Gardiner, CPST
Car seat installation doesn’t have to be complicated.

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

Baby car seats come with various recommendations and restrictions that differ based on the model. Plus, vehicles are all 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 what we’ll tackle in this article. Read on to learn how to install your car seat correctly and ensure your baby’s safety.

Key Takeaways

  • Install car seats in the center of the second row for maximum safety, but follow vehicle and car seat manual guidelines.
  • Keep children rear-facing until at least 2 years old or until they reach the car seat’s rear-facing weight or height limit.
  • Use either the LATCH system or seat belts for installation, but not both; ensure a tight fit with less than 1 inch of movement.
  • Avoid bulky clothes, hand-me-downs, and improvised installation methods; seek professional help if unsure about installation.

Where Should the Car Seat Go?

The first thing you should do is review your vehicle manual. Look for the child passenger safety section to see exactly where your seat should be installed. Then read the car seat manual to find the best place for your car seat.

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 you can install most car seats 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.
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Editor's Note:

Kristen Gardiner, CPST

Driver or Passenger Side: Which Is Better?

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

However, it’s harder to check up on them while driving 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 their age and size make them 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. But 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 your child rear-facing until at least 2 years old or until they reach the car seat’s rear-facing 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 range 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% of rear-facing kids suffer lower-extremity injuries in car accidents (5). Kids are also quite flexible, and rear-facing is not usually uncomfortable.

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 of the vehicle. This is the most dangerous place for them.

Airbags deploy at a dangerous speed and could severely injure or kill your child. 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 baby’s age and the 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 that you keep parallel to the ground to achieve the correct angle, and some have a bubble or ball indicator to 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 the seat sits too flat, the child might slide out of the straps. However, if it’s too upright, their head might flop forward, limiting 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. 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; a 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

Some car manufacturers place two LATCH anchors on each of the outside seats and not the center (6). The LATCH system consists of two main parts: lower anchors (metal bars between the back and bottom seat cushions) and tether anchors (a 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 that attach to the lower anchors on both sides. Route the LATCH strap through the belt path for the direction the seat faces, 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 tugging at it (use the same amount of force as a firm handshake). Ensure there is less than 1 inch 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 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 ensure 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 it 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 locking clip, 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 other 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 tugging at it (use the same amount of force as a firm handshake). Ensure there is less than 1 inch of movement from side to side or front to back. Adjust if necessary.

Handy Car Seat Tips

  • Is it OK for a baby to sleep in their car seat? A quick supervised nap during a short trip is fine. However, car seats are generally not designed for that purpose. If left unsupervised, the baby could be at risk of death through suffocation or strangulation.
  • Is it OK to use your baby car seat in a 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, it makes the cart top-heavy and could potentially tip it over. You can instead place the car seat in the shopping cart basket or wear your baby in a carrier.
  • Can you use a 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 (7). You’ll need to use the plane seat belt to secure it.
  • What’s the problem with bulky clothes? Do not strap your child into their car seat when they’re 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 layer 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 car seat 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 (8).
  • Always use the tether for forward-facing car seats: Regardless of the installation method you choose for forward-facing seats, always attach your tether strap to your vehicle’s tether anchor. The tether 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 stage of life could last 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 happens when they reach about 4 feet 9 inches in height.
  • Never use a seat that doesn’t fit your child: You will often 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 to ensure your child is protected.
  • Don’t get creative with your car seat: Some 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 are sure the seat was not in a vehicle during 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. Always ensure they are snug enough. You should not be able to pinch any slack in the strap near the child’s shoulders (9).
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How Do I Know If My Car Seat is Installed Correctly?

As long as you’ve correctly followed the manufacturer’s instructions and checked that it’s tightly secured and has minimal side-to-side movement, you’ve likely installed the car seat properly. Many local fire or police departments also offer car seat checks.

Which Car Seat is Easiest to Install?

The easiest car seat to install often features clear instructions, intuitive design, and advanced installation systems like LATCH. Look for models known for their ease, such as Britax or Chicco.

Why is the Middle the Safest For a Car Seat?

The middle of the back seat is often the safest place for a car seat as it’s the furthest from any potential impact during a crash, reducing the risk of injury.

Do I Need an Insert For My Car Seat?

Some newborns or small infants may need an insert for proper positioning and safety in a car seat. Check the manufacturer’s recommendations for when and how to use inserts.

What Does a Car Seat Anchor Point Look Like?

A car seat anchor point is typically a metal loop or bar found in the vehicle’s seat crease or back, part of the LATCH system in newer cars, intended for securing car seats.

What are the Most Common Car Seat Mistakes?

Common car seat mistakes include incorrect installation, using the wrong seat for the child’s age or size, not securing the harness tightly, and transitioning to the next seat or position too soon.

Can My Local Fire Department Install My Car Seat?

Many local fire departments offer car seat installation assistance. Call ahead to confirm services and availability.

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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.