Answers to Your Biggest Car Seat Questions

The Answers to Your Car Seat Safety Questions

September 19, 2018

The Answers to Your Car Seat Safety Questions

The Answers to Your Car Seat Safety Questions
The Answers to Your Car Seat Safety Questions

We’ve all been there—installing a car seat can cause a bit of anxiety. Did I do it right? Latch or lap belt? Which side of the car should I install it in?

We asked the Babylist community on Facebook and Instagram for their biggest car seat questions, and child passenger safety advocate Sarah Tilton is here to answer them and give you some peace of mind.

Q: How do you ensure you’ve gotten a secure/tight install?

A: A firm installation of a car seat should not allow more than 1” of movement left-to-right and front-to-back at the belt path (where the vehicle seat belt or LATCH webbing passes through the car seat shell or base).

When checking at the belt path for installation tightness, remember that the further away from that point you try to move the car seat, the easier it will move. That is normal and acceptable.

Please refer to the user guide for your specific car seat or call their customer service department for assistance.

View an example of a base installation with lower anchors.

Q: Where is the best spot to install a car seat in the car/truck?

A. Ultimately the safest location is the one in the back seat where you can get the correct installation per the user guide for the car seat. Everyone under the age of 13 is safest in the back seat.

Car seats offer various methods of installation: lap-only vehicle seat belt, lap and shoulder vehicle seat belt and Lower Anchors and Tethers (LATCH). Neither method is safer than the other—simply use the one you can get the correct installation with according to both the vehicle owner’s manual and car seat user guide.

The rear-center is perceived to be the safest, as it is furthest from side impact on either side. Statistically there is no significant difference from driver’s side vs passenger side. Things to think about might be:

  • If you live in an area where you parallel park, never take baby out on traffic side. Always take them out of the car on curb side.
  • Families with more than one child: having a toddler immediately next to a newborn/infant might not be the best option. You don’t want the toddler feeding the infant their snacks.

You can receive car seat installation assistance by meeting with a Nationally Certified Child Passenger Safety Technician. Find a Certified Child Passenger Safety Technician here or find a car seat checkup event near you.

Q. When do you upgrade from seat to seat?

A. Children should ride in a rear-facing car seat as long as possible, until they reach the highest weight OR height allowed by their car seat or exceeds any other requirements set by their car seat manufacturer.

When a child outgrows a rear-facing-only car seat (infant/bucket seat) by height OR weight, the next step would be a convertible car seat rear-facing that goes to a higher weight capacity.

All children who have outgrown the rear-facing weight or height limit for their convertible car seat rear-facing should use a forward-facing car seat with a harness for as long as possible, up to the highest weight or height allowed by their car seat’s manufacturer.

We as adults perceive a child rear-facing as uncomfortable when they start to crisscross their legs or worry about injury when their feet touch the vehicle seat back. A rear-facing car seat will cradle the child’s head, neck and spine during a frontal impact. There are no known cases of leg injury from extended rear-facing.

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Q. What are the rules when it comes to the LATCH system? And what are top tethers?

A. LATCH is the acronym for a car seat installation method referred to as Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children. As a side note, in Canada this system is referred to as the Universal Anchorage System (UAS), and tether is separate.

A top tether reduces the forward movement of a child during a frontal impact by 4”-6”. This can mean the difference between the child’s head contacting or not contacting the vehicle seat back in front of them—depending also on the front seat’s positioning.

The use of the top tether with forward-facing car seats (installed with lower anchors or vehicle seat belt) is always recommended in the United States (required forward-facing in Canada). In fact, some car seats require you to use the tether.

LATCH has limits: proper installation regarding the use of lower anchors, tether and/or seat belt can be always be verified in the user guide for your car seat and vehicle owner’s manual.

Car seats manufactured since February 2014 will have a maximum child weight capacity when installed with lower anchors on a label on the side of the car seat, as well as in their user guide. Once your child’s weight is equal to that number, you will switch your installation from lower anchors to a vehicle seat belt.

Some vehicle manufacturers have also applied the lower anchor weight capacity to the tether anchor. Your vehicle owner’s manual may provide this limitation (but aren’t required to). This chart may help you determine tether use restrictions by vehicle.

The difference between a car seat recommending the use of the tether compared to requiring its use will determine what seating positions you install them in your vehicle.

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Q. What about recline and rear-facing?

A. Installing a car seat at the appropriate recline is extremely important for the newborn/young infant to maintain an airway. They do not yet have head and neck control. So if they sit too upright, their chin goes to chest and can compromise their airway.

Usually as a child grows, car seats allow rear-facing car seats to be positioned in a more upright position. Sometimes these directives are based around weights. Most car seats have some type of recline indicator attached. Please refer to that as well as the user guide for detailed instructions.

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Q. Any tips for keeping a child who gets carsick rear facing as long as possible?

A. What works for one child may not work for another when it comes to motion sickness. Looking straight ahead (not to the side) is helpful to many.

Other suggestions would be to keep the temperature inside the car a bit cooler than normal and coordinate travel time with nap time if possible.

Q. What about car seat accessories?

A. Before purchasing car seat accessories, check with the car seat manufacturer to determine if they have tested the accessories with their car seats, or what, if any accessories, they permit to be used with their car seats.

Accessories such as seat protectors and positioning inserts are commonly purchased items, but often not approved for use with every car seat. Before a manufacturer approves the use of an accessory with their car seat, they would want to confirm it does not negatively affect the performance of the car seat in a crash.

The use of positioning inserts that come with a car seat vary between makes and models. Refer to the user guide for your car seat and the labels attached for direction. User guides can be found online or you can call the customer service department for support.

Harness covers should only be used if they come with the car seat at time of purchase or they are a separately purchased item approved for use by the car seat manufacturer with your specific model of car seat.

As for mirrors, they can be a distraction to the driver as well as become a flying object in the event of a crash if they’re not securely attached to the vehicle seat. If the driver is looking in the rearview mirror to see in the baby mirror to see what the baby is doing, who is watching the road?

As a caregiver, you will learn the sounds of your child and their sounds of distress compared to just wanting attention. Regardless, if you determine they need attention visually or audibly, you cannot safely stop your vehicle any quicker.

Q. Any advice for straps and securely fastening baby?

A. A national study showed that 60% of caregivers do not tighten the harness tightly enough around the child. The harness should be snug so that you cannot vertically pinch harness webbing between your fingers at the collarbone area.

General practice is to place the chest clip at armpit level. Some will say nipple line—in between there is usually acceptable. It is always best to refer to the user guide for your specific car seat or call their customer service department for assistance.

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Q. Is there a risk in getting a used car seat from someone?

A. Never use a car seat if it is expired, has been involved in a crash or you don’t know its history. For more information visit www.nhtsa.gov.

Getting a car seat from a close friend or family member who can tell you if it has ever been in a crash, has all the parts and registered the car seat so you can determine if it is involved in a recall is different than buying from a second hand store that cannot answer these questions for you.

Q. Is it OK for car seats to touch?

A. Some car seat manufacturers allow car seats to touch each other, but they should not be puzzled together—car seats need to move independently during a crash event. It is always best to refer to the user guide for your specific car seat or call their customer service department for assistance and instruction on how to use your car seat.

Q. How many years after the manufacture date does the car seat expire?

A. The expiration of car seats varies by manufacturer and model. Expiration dates can range between 4 to 10 years from date of manufacture. You may find the expiration date on a label attached to the car seat or in the user guide. It is always best to refer to the user guide for your specific car seat or call their customer service department for assistance.

Many people asked about what’s the best infant or convertible car seat for them to buy. Every family is different, but all car seats meet federal safety standards, so whatever car seat you buy will be safe. But car seats vary in weight, fabric and other extras.

Here are Babylist’s guides to the best infant car seats and convertible car seats, as chosen by Babylist families, and video reviews of popular infant and convertible car seats.


Sarah Tilton is an internationally recognized child passenger safety (CPS) advocate. She’s an active CPS Technician/Instructor, Safety Spokesperson for Britax and Safety Expert for Babylist videos.

This information is provided for educational and entertainment purposes only. We do not accept any responsibility for any liability, loss or risk, personal or otherwise, incurred as a consequence, directly or indirectly, from any information or advice contained here. Babylist may earn compensation from affiliate links in this content. Learn more about how we write Babylist content.