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Health & Safety

Car Seat Safety: 7 Things Every Parent Should Know

Don't start the engine before reading these safety tips 

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Using a car seat is the best way to keep kids safe when driving, but installing it correctly can be a challenge. In fact, a whopping 95 percent of new parents make car seat errors, according to research from the Oregon Health & Science University Hospital in Portland. The most common mistakes include installing it too loosely or at the wrong angle. Here's what you need to know:

Buy it new. It's fine to pick up baby clothes at a flea market or garage sale, but don't buy a car seat there. A used car seat may be missing a part or have been recalled and you may not be able to tell if it's been in a crash. Manufacturers and safety experts advise that unless you know the car seat's full history, you should invest in a new one, explains Gary Smith, MD, director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.

Get professional help. As noted above, nearly every parent gets it wrong when installing the seat. Of course, you'll read the manual (thoroughly) and do your best, but for the greatest peace of mind, go to safekids.org to find a car seat expert or to locate a free seat check event in your area. "Nationally certified child passenger safety technicians are available in many locations to help parents fit the seat properly into their vehicle and to answer questions," explains Kate Carr, President and CEO of Safe Kids Worldwide. "Plus, the service is free."

Stay rear-facing. Kids should face the back of the car for as long as possible or at least until age 2, notes Smith. The reason: when a child faces forward in a front-end crash, a head or neck injury is more likely. (Kids' heads make up a larger percentage of their body weight, and their neck muscles aren't as strong as adults.) "If kids are rear-facing, the impact is absorbed by the bulk of their body and they're less likely to be hurt," Smith adds. 

Know his size. "All car seats are designed and crash-tested to meet government standards based on the weight and height of the child who will use it," explains Carr. A seat that's too small or too big won't protect your child properly and could result in injury if your car is in a crash, so it's critical to keep track of your tot's measurements. Also, before you shop, it's a good idea to learn the available car seat options. The three types of rear-facing ones are:
  · Rear-facing only: Many of these conveniently portable seats can be used in strollers that are either sold with the car seat or recommended by the manufacturer. You can also purchase extra bases for use in several cars.
  · Convertible: This type is larger and tends to stay in the car. Your child can sit rear-facing in it until he's at least 2. Then, it can be used forward-facing.
  · 3-in-1: This one also stays in the car and can be used rear-facing, forward-facing, and as a booster seat later on.

Tighten the straps. Check to see whether the harness straps that surround your child fit snugly. Don't allow them to be slack in any way, and be sure there's room for the width of just one finger at the collar bone. Wearing extra layers, especially in winter, can mean the straps will sit too loosely on your child. Remove bulky jackets or padded garments before buckling her into the seat. You can always cover your child with a blanket (or her coat) once she's secured.

Don't use props or pillows. And skip the rolled-up blanket, a piece of pool noodle, or anything else that may affect the angle at which the seat should be positioned. "Most car seats have a built-in way to adjust the angle so that a child under 2 sits in a semi-reclined, rear-facing position," says Carr.  A rear-facing baby's head, shoulders, and hips need to be supported properly by the back of the car seat to allow the child to breathe correctly. (If the seat sits too upright, the baby's head could fall forward and her airway might become blocked.) Always read the manufacturer's instructions to learn how to adjust the angle for the correct position in your vehicle's seat.

Take it with you. This means bringing a car seat on planes and every kind of vehicle, including taxis, Uber, Lyft, and the city bus. According to the FAA, the safest place for your child when flying is in a government-approved passenger safety device-not on your lap, reports Smith. (You can check with the manufacturer to learn whether your seat is certified for use on planes.) You'll also need the seat at your destination, so bringing it along makes even more sense.