Installing a Car Seat
A Quick Guide for Infant and Toddler Seats
It's as much a rite of passage as childbirth itself — the dreaded car seat installation. Fraught with anxiety about "doing it wrong," millions of new parents nevertheless fight it out in a sweaty, grunt-inducing battle with the infant car seat, a hunk of white plastic that somehow holds the power of life or death over their fragile newborn. Upon the birth of their first child, even normally laid-back people have been known to worry about car seats with type A obsessiveness.
Chances are that they're getting it wrong anyway.
Amazingly, research from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) shows that as many as 80 percent of all car seats are improperly installed and used. Eighty percent. It's a significant factor in why automobile accidents are the number-one killer of children under 14.
The great difficulty in installing car seats has always been the almost limitless variety in the way that both car seats and vehicle seats are made. Getting a good fit between car seat and vehicle seat is more difficult than manufacturers on either side of the equation would care to admit. Vehicle seatbelts might have automatic locking retractors (ALR), emergency locking retractors (ELR) or ones that switch between the two. Seat cushions can be flat or rounded, wide or narrow. Most newer cars' middle seats have shoulder belts, some older ones don't, but all models post 2008 will. Add to this the wide array of child safety seat dimensions and configurations, and you've got literally thousands of combinations to contend with.
To assist the consumer and simplify installation, the federal government set a standard: New car seats and most vehicles made after September 2002 must feature LATCH, or Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children. LATCH attachments come in rigid (a metal piece that snaps over the anchor — found on Britax-brand car seats) and flexible (a hook that clips over the anchor). (See our article, "Sitting Tight: A Car Seat Overview.") If both your child seat and your car are equipped with LATCH, there's no need to use the seatbelts to install the seat. But LATCH created its own set of problems, and not all LATCH seats will fit into all cars. NHTSA responded again by rating car seats for ease of use.
As publicity grows about the necessity of properly installed car seats, the situation is slowly getting better. There are now hundreds of safety seat inspection stations where you can have your installation checked by a certified child passenger safety technician who has passed NHTSA's 32-hour course.
Most Web sites that talk about car seat installation are extremely general. This makes sense in light of the innumerable issues that arise. We'd like to go one step further, though, and point out some of the lesser-known tricks and traps. We're only going to cover a rear-facing infant-only seat and a forward-facing toddler seat, because those are two very common needs. Although we can't cover every "what if," we hope you'll come away more prepared, so that installing your car seat isn't such a struggle. You can also check out our video, "How to Install a Car Seat," to actually see how it's done.
Before You Start
There are some things to know and rules to follow in any car seat installation:
- Use the right kind of seat for your child's age, weight and height. (See our article How to Choose a Car Seat.) If you have leather seats, get some non-slip rubber shelf liner or purchase a "seat saver" to put under the car seat. It will keep your vehicle seat clean and prevent the car seat from sliding around. (Depending on your car seat, though, a seat saver could interfere with installation, so hold on to the receipt.)
- The safest placement for a car seat is in the rear seat; never put a child in the front seat if you can help it. Absolutely never in front of a passenger-side airbag that can't be deactivated. The middle rear seat is generally considered the safest, but most aren't LATCH compliant, so use the standard seatbelt installation for the middle seat unless your child safety seat's instructions specifically note otherwise.
- We've said it before, and we'll say it again: Read both the car and child seat manuals carefully, and always follow the car seat manufacturer's advice. If you have questions, call the car seat or vehicle manufacturer. Your local dealer may or may not be up to speed on your installation questions.
Rear-Facing, Infant-Only Seat — LATCH Install
Many parents of newborns like the type of infant car seat that comes with a separate base. The base remains installed in the car while the baby carrier itself can be taken out and snapped back in at will.
Infant seat bases usually have flexible LATCH connectors — essentially belts with hooks at the ends.
Locate the lower anchors in the second-row window seats. Make sure the car seat lays flat against the seat's bottom and back, between the lower anchors.
Hook the LATCH attachment that is furthest away from you onto the anchor. Then, if possible, climb on top of the seat, putting your knee on top. Using your weight to fully compress the vehicle seat, hook the other attachment to the anchor and pull out the slack. If you can't get on top of the seat, use all your strength to push down on the seat while hooking on the second attachment.
Don't worry about a tether — it's extremely rare for an infant car seat to require one.
Rear-Facing, Infant-Only Seat — Standard Shoulder and Lap Belt Install
What if your car or your car seat is an older model and doesn't feature LATCH? Or what if your car's seat cushions or anchor placements make LATCH installation impossible? You can still do a standard shoulder and lap belt installation that's perfectly safe. First, thread the vehicle's lap and shoulder belt through the correct slots, called the "belt path." If you have a convertible car seat that reverses from forward-facing to rear-facing, be careful to choose the correct path; it will be clearly marked.
Plug the latch plate (male end of the seatbelt) into the buckle (female end), then, using your weight as above, tighten the belt. Make sure all the slack is taken out of both the lap and the shoulder. Typically, using a locking clip will give you a more secure installation. A locking clip is an H-shaped piece of metal that comes with all new car seats or can be ordered from the manufacturer. To use one, plug the seatbelt in, make it as tight as possible, then unplug it again while holding the belt very tightly. Wind the locking clip around the belt as close as possible to the latch plate, then plug it back in. You may have to bounce down on the seat a few times to get it closed. This won't be easy, but it will give you a rock-solid installation.
Remember that a rear-facing infant car seat should sit at a 45-degree angle to prevent the baby from slumping and to keep his or her airway open. Check your instructions to see if your seat has an angle adjuster; if so, use it. If not, a small piece of a swimming pool "noodle" wedged under the seat is the safest way to get the same angle. Why a noodle? Well, you can also use a tightly rolled towel, but towels compress over time, whereas the material in pool noodles does not. If you use a towel, check it occasionally to see that the angle has been maintained.
Forward-Facing Toddler Seat — LATCH Install
Use your body weight to compress the vehicle seat. With a rigid LATCH attachment, simply push the attachments onto the anchor. For a flexible one, hook the attachment over the anchor. In both cases, pull the straps as tight as you can.
Then comes the tether, which you'll find at the top of the safety seat. The purpose of the tether, when properly anchored, is to prevent the car seat (and thus the baby's head) from snapping forward. Different cars have different locations for the tether anchors. They can be behind or under the seat, along the rear window shelf and, in many SUVs and wagons, on the floor of the cargo bay or in the ceiling. You must check your vehicle owner's manual to be sure. If your car was made prior to 1999, you may need to consult the car's manufacturer or your local dealer to complete your installation. In a 1991 Honda Accord, an easy to install, $13 bolt available at the local dealer was all that was required.
Hook the tether to the anchor point, then pull tight on the belt to remove any slack. Make sure NOT to attach the tether to the sliding seat adjuster or to a cargo hook. Don't attach more than one car seat tether to the same anchor point unless your vehicle manual says it's OK.
Forward-Facing Toddler Seat — Shoulder and Lap Belt Install
For a shoulder and lap belt installation, thread the vehicle's lap and shoulder belt through the appropriate belt path.
Buckle the seatbelt. As before, use your body weight to compress the vehicle seat cushion. If the child seat has a "lock-off" clip — located on the side of the seat — be sure to refer to your instruction manual on how to use it. If it doesn't have a lock-off clip, pull the shoulder belt slowly all the way out, then let it retract. If you hear clicking sounds, the seatbelt has an automatic locking retractor, and is locking itself. (Some retractors are very quiet, though — if the belt feels rigid after it retracts, the seatbelt is most likely locked.) Pull the belt as tight as possible.
If you can still pull out slack on the belt, you do not have seatbelts that lock automatically and you will need to use a locking clip to secure the seat, same as above. Bear in mind that emergency locking retractors are not the same as automatic ones and, despite their name, must still be locked down with a clip. To use a locking clip, unplug the seatbelt and hold it tight. Wind the locking clip around the belt as close as possible to the latch plate, then plug it back in.
What many people don't understand is that the lap portion of the seatbelt is the part responsible for keeping the car seat secure. The shoulder belt portion must be "locked down" if the lap portion isn't locked on its own, which is what usually happens. Dodge and Chrysler vehicles, however, have a special mechanism on the lap portion of their shoulder/lap belt that locks the lap belt securely, so that the shoulder belt portion becomes irrelevant.
It's important to remember that, after a car seat is installed, the seatbelt's latch plate should NOT lie against the curved opening of the car seat. If it does, try to make the buckle shorter, even if it means twisting it a full turn or two around. If that still doesn't work, your car seat might not be the right choice for your car.
One More Important Step
When you're done installing any car seat, check it by trying to move it. It shouldn't move more than an inch side to side along the belt path. If it does, tighten the straps or try installing it again.
If you're unsure of your installation, you can have it checked. To find a Certified Child Safety Seat Inspection Station, call your car dealer, or go to NHTSA's Child Passenger Safety section or the National Safe Kids Campaign site. Considering the high percentage of incorrectly installed car seats, we always recommend having a professional look at it.
There are several wonderful Web sites that offer highly detailed guides to car seat installation and are worth exploring. Among them:
Car Seat Site
NHTSA's Child Passenger Safety Site
National Safe Kids Campaign
The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia