How to Clean a Car Seat

How to Clean a Car Seat

November 20, 2019

How to Clean a Car Seat

How to Clean a Car Seat
How to Clean a Car Seat

If there’s one universal truth about parenting, it’s this: kids are messy. And this unfortunate reality is never more apparent than when your little one is strapped into their car seat.

The car seat is the ultimate baby gear magnet for dirt, crumbs, spilled milk, smushed up raisins and whatever bodily fluid your baby and toddler can throw its way. So at some point, when you’re feeling extra brave, you’ll probably want to clean yours. But before you tackle this dirty job—read this first. Because although it’s entirely possible to transform your soiled seat back to its original glory, there are some really important things you’ll need to know first.

Car Seats + Safety: Why You Need to Play by the Rules

Before we dive into the dos and don’ts of how to clean a car seat, it’s helpful to know some basic info about car seats and safety.

From installation to cleaning to everything in between, you may feel like there are a lot of rules around car seats. And you’d be right! There are a lot of rules around car seats. Height and weight requirements, rear- versus forward-facing, proper installation and, yes, even proper car seat cleaning techniques are all things you’ll need to think through when it comes to car seat safety.

That’s because, first and foremost, a car seat is a safety device. A car seat’s number one job is to protect your child in the event of a crash—but a car seat can’t do this job unless you follow all the (very) specific usage and care guidelines that apply to your particular seat. So although learning how to clean your little one’s car seat may seem like yet one more thing on your long parenting to-do list, we think it’s something that’s well worth a bit of extra time and knowledge.

Now roll up those sleeves and let’s get to work.

Car Seat Cleaning Myths and Misconceptions

It’s helpful to be aware of some of the most common myths and misconceptions around car seat cleaning before you get out your scrub brush and get started.

According to car seat expert extraordinaire Dr. Alisa Baer, Pediatrician & Co-Founder of The Car Seat Lady, there are a few mistakes parents and caregivers often make when it comes to cleaning their little one’s seat.

  • Using the wrong cleaning products. Products matter—a lot. Cleaning products (yes, even “natural” products like vinegar) can compromise the safety of a car seat. There are very few cleaning products that are safe to use on car seats, and these approved products also differ from seat to seat.
  • Assuming all seats can be cleaned in the same way. Different brands of car seats have different cleaning instructions, and what works for one seat may not work on another, according to Dr. Baer.
  • Improper reassembly. Not putting the seat back together properly after cleaning is a very common mistake, says Dr. Baer, and one that can have big consequences on safety. Harness straps aren’t put together correctly, are twisted or are put in the wrong spot for a child’s weight and height; parts go missing during the cleaning process; the chest clip has been removed and put back on improperly; or the splitter plate (the piece that holds the seat’s shoulder straps where it’s connected to the tail you use to tighten the harness straps) gets pushed to the underside of the seat. Parents often get creative in how to reconnect the straps—and creative doesn’t do well in a crash. Small errors can grossly compromise the safety of a car seat.
  • Trusting car seat cleaning service. While there are some car seat cleaning service companies that do follow proper cleaning methods, it’s often tough to figure out which companies are safe and which are not. Dr. Baer recommends skipping these services unless the company can tell you specifically what methods they’re using to clean your particular seat.

How to Clean a Car Seat

Step One: Consult Your Manual

“Different car seats allow for different cleaning methods,” Dr. Baer says, so before you even pick up a scrub brush, it’s important that you figure out the specifics for your seat.

“You need to check the instruction manual for your specific seat,” she says. Other options include checking the brand’s website or calling the manufacturer and chatting with the customer service team. They’ll be more than happy to help and can go over the ins and outs of your particular seat so you know what’s safe—and what’s not.

Step Two: Gather Your Tools

According to Dr. Baer, these are the best tools of the trade for cleaning your car seat:

  • Clean rag
  • A bucket filled with water
  • Toothbrush or electric toothbrush (without toothpaste, of course!)
  • Cotton swabs
  • Screwdriver with a wet rag over the tip

What should you avoid? Lysol, Clorox, bleach, any type of acid (even vinegar) are all big no-nos in the cleaning products department. You’ll also want to pay special attention to the plastic and harness parts of your seat, says Dr. Baer. “Car seats are exposed to extreme heat, so I try not to put anything on the plastic or harness that could affect the integrity of these parts,” she says.

Step Three: Clean Part by Part

Although it is possible to do some spot cleaning of your car seat while it’s still installed in your car, it’s best to remove the seat for a more thorough cleaning. We recommend working on a firm surface, and even cleaning outside if that’s an option for you in order to minimize the mess. It’s also best to start by shaking out the car seat to remove any crumbs and then giving it a quick vacuum to get whatever you can out that way before you start deep cleaning.

You’ll want to clean your seat one part at a time and follow the specific cleaning instructions for each. Here’s a good way to break it down, according to Dr. Baer.

  • Straps. “Harness straps have micro elastic fibers that are there to provide a teeny bit of stretch in a crash and help decrease the forces applied to the child’s chest. This is why straps must be cleaned more carefully than some of the other parts of the car seat,” Dr. Baer says. Use water (only water!) and a toothbrush to get in the nooks and crannies in the straps to get the yuck out. Never submerge the straps in water unless your seat manufacturer specifically approves it. And if your straps are especially gross from something extra smelly, like vomit, you may want to consider reaching out to the seat’s manufacturer to learn if replacing them altogether is an option. (Which it usually is for most seats, and typically under $25.)
  • Crotch buckle. Most crotch buckles can be washed in warm, soapy water—but be sure to check your instruction manual just in case. After rinsing it out, immediately hang the buckle upside down to dry without the buckle tongues in it. “This is important, as I’ve seen rusty buckles from car seat cleaning services that steam or something else that wets the area and they leave the crotch buckle rightside up and buckled in while it’s drying,” Dr. Baer says.
  • Fabric cover. Most are machine washable, but never put them in the dryer unless your instructions specifically say to do so. (You risk disintegrating the backing in the high heat.) And remember to allow enough time for your car seat cover to air dry if you plan on washing it and using it again soon.
  • Plastic parts. Dr. Baer recommends cleaning with just water and your tools: clean rag, screwdriver with rag on the end to dig around the places you can’t reach with your hand, cotton swabs and a toothbrush.

Here are some of Dr. Baer’s other top tips to keep in mind when you’re cleaning your car seat:

  • All car seats have crevices, and crevices are often where smelly, yucky dirt tends to hide. (Who doesn’t love a five-month-old Goldfish?) Use your tools to clean your car seat’s crevices for best results.
  • Use your phone to take a video—or at least a few photos—as you take the car seat apart. “You will NOT remember how to put it back together properly,” Dr. Baer says. “Errors can make the car seat unsafe in a crash. Refer to the manual when putting the seat back together as well, but often times your pictures will be more helpful than the diagrams in the manual.”
  • Your car seat’s manufacturer is the best source of information on how to safely and effectively clean your car seat, so don’t be afraid to contact them. Reach out and ask for advice before you start, especially if you’re confused on what parts are or aren’t removable or how to take a certain section of the seat apart.

Tips for Keeping Your Car Seat Clean

Now that you’ve safely cleaned your seat, you’re probably wondering how you’re going to keep it that way. There are a few dos and don’ts to follow here, too, according to Dr. Baer.

While car seat protector mats may sound like a good idea for protecting the area under your seat, Dr. Baer advises to use them with caution. If the mat is made by the same manufacturer as your car seat and is approved for use with the seat, then it means the mat has been crash-tested along with the seat and is safe to use.

However, if it’s sold by a different car seat manufacturer or by a different company altogether (these items are often called “aftermarket products”), there’s no way to know if it’s safe, so it’s best to avoid. Also keep in mind that some mats can be bulky and can affect your ability to get a secure installation of your car seat, Dr. Baer says.

And what if you’ve got a puker on your hands? Motion sickness can be tough for kids (and for their parents who have to clean up the results of it), so it’s best to try to take some steps to stop it in its tracks if possible.

While there’s no magic cure for motion sickness, Dr. Baer does recommend several tips and tricks that may help. She also suggests the Bumkins SuperSized SuperBib as a great, full-coverage bib option that can help contain the mess if your child is prone to vomiting in the car; just remember to put the bib on after your little one is safely buckled and strapped into their car seat.

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