Babies Beware: Your Parents Don’t Know How to Use a Car Seat

Babies Beware: Your Parents Don't Know How to Use a Car Seat

Precious cargo: Soon-to-be-parents should make an appointment with a car seat tech before the baby’s due date.

Photo by Getty Images

New parents are notorious worrywarts — yet many put their newborn’s life at risk before even leaving the hospital parking lot. More than 9 out of 10 parents unknowingly use car seats incorrectly on the first trip home from the hospital, according to a study presented today at the American Academy of Pediatrics National Conference Exhibition in San Diego.

Why that’s so alarming: When collisions happen, car seats reduce the risk of infant death by 71 percent, according to the CDC. But your baby isn’t guaranteed that protection if you don’t install the seat correctly or strap him or her in the right way — which may explain why motor vehicle accidents are a leading cause of death among young children.

Brand-new babies are especially vulnerable passengers, since they lack muscle tone around their head, neck, and spinal cord, noted study author Dr. Ben Hoffman, an injury prevention specialist and pediatrician at Oregon Health Science University (OHSU). “They are the least able to protect themselves in a crash.” 

For the study, the OHSU researchers asked 267 families to install their car seat, if they hadn’t already, and position their infant in it. A certified child passenger safety technician then recorded (and corrected) all of their mistakes before letting them leave the hospital with their newborn. Alarmingly, 93 percent of them made a “critical error” — that is, a mistake that could pose a serious threat to their little one if they got into an accident. 

This isn’t the first time the researchers have seen parents making such major mistakes. “I’ve been a car-seat technician since 1997,” Hoffman told Yahoo Health. “Everything we saw in the study is exactly what I would have predicted, based on years of spending weekends in parking lots working with families.” 

Related: 3 Insights Into Baby’s Brains

The introduction of LATCH — or Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children — technology in vehicles in 2002 aimed to make car-seat installation easier by eliminating the need for seat belts. But the fact is, “even though car seats have become easier to use, they’re still hard to use,” said Hoffman. “And the newborn period is almost the perfect storm: You’ve got the most vulnerable passenger and the most vulnerable parent, in terms of lack of experience, especially if it’s their first baby. And it’s a really vulnerable time. You’ve just given birth, you’re exhausted, you’re terrified, and you’re bombarded with information as you prepare to leave the hospital.”

And although new parents may spend hours researching which car seat to buy, they may not actually take it out of the box before the big day. “They think it will be really intuitive,” explained Gina Duchossois, an injury prevention expert at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case — and that assumption can lead to serious installation errors and misuse of the seat. “Make sure you pull the car seat out and play with it,” she said. “Take a look at the manual. Make sure you really understand it prior to that first trip home from the hospital.” 

Another word of advice: Make an appointment with a car-seat tech well before your due date. In the study, parents who did so faced a significantly lower risk of installation or usage errors. (Find a certified technician in your area here.) 

So what safety measures did parents most often screw up?

Errors in positioning

The harness was too loose: 69% 

This mistake is most likely a mark of new-parent jitters: “Newborns are very fragile. We’re trying to be very gentle with them,” said Duchossois. “We’re afraid that we’re making the harness too tight.” The truth is, a loose harness poses a risk of big-time bodily harm: In the event of a crash, your infant’s chest will make contact with whatever is restraining him or her. “If they have two inches between them and the strap, they’re going to accelerate at 30, 40, 60 miles per hour into that strap,” said Hoffman. 

To make sure your child’s harness is tight enough, pinch the webbing between two fingers. Is there any slack? If so, it’s too loose. Hint: Look for a car seat that allows you to adjust the harness from the front, which will make it easier to modify the fit.

The retainer clip was too low: 34%

“I think parents just don’t realize what that clip is for,” said Duchossois. As a result, they may not worry too much about its positioning. But it’s actually a critical safety device: “The retainer clip keeps the straps from splaying over the baby’s shoulders,” Hoffman explained. Why that matters: If the straps are splayed, your infant may be ejected toward the windshield from a rear-facing seat during a crash. “The right position [for the clip] is at the center of the chest at armpit level,” said Hoffman.

Related: Breastfeeding May Boost a Mom’s Health as Much as Her Baby’s

Use of after-market products not approved with the seat: 20%

This includes those little cushions designed to slip under your little one’s hiney, as well as toys and mirrors that attach to the car seat. “Anything you add to the car seat has not been crash tested by the car seat manufacturer,” warned Duchossois. In other words, the safety of those accessories hasn’t been checked, so you shouldn’t use them. 

Specifically, the cushions create space between your baby and the seat, which may change how the seat behaves in a crash. “A similar scenario would be putting a down jacket on a baby, then putting the straps on,” Hoffman told Yahoo Health. “In a crash, that down jacket compresses essentially into air, so it introduces space between the baby and the strap.” The problem with dangling toys: They can turn into dangerous projectiles in the event of a collision, he said.

Errors in installation

Seat installed too loosely: 43%

If the seat wiggles, your baby will too. “If you give the seat a good tug, it shouldn’t move more than an inch from side to side or towards the front of the vehicle,” said Duchossois. Test it before you drive off with your little one: Put weight in the seat, then jostle it to see how much movement occurs, advised Hoffman. Hint: To avoid a wiggly seat altogether, look for one with rigid lower anchors, which are impossible to install too loosely, unlike those made with flexible webbing.

Angle of car seat incorrect: 36%

Rear-facing seats should be leaning back between 30 to 45 degrees. “For a newborn, we want to make sure it’s closer to the 45-degree mark,” Duchossois told Yahoo Health. “If the car seat is too upright, then the baby’s head may fall forward.” If you place the seat on a flat surface, it will naturally rest at the right angle, said Hoffman. Problem is, “most vehicle seats aren’t flat — they angle downward to accommodate large adult bottoms,” he said.

Most rear-facing seats have an angle adjustor, helping you find the right position, but convertible seats — those that can face forward or backward — often do not. For these seats, Duchossois suggested placing a rolled-up towel in the crack of the vehicle seat, under the car seat, to help you establish the correct angle.

Safety belt not locked: 23%

If you’re not using the LATCH system — because you drive an older car, for example — you’ll have to rely on the seat belt for security. And in doing so, parents often skip a critical step: locking the seat belt after installing the infant seat. For adult use, the seat belt tightens up only on impact — it’s designed to allow you to move forward the rest of the time. “That’s not good for a car seat,” said Duchoissois. Refer to your car’s owner’s manual for instructions on how to lock the seat belts in your vehicle. 

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