It’s a big job for this child life specialist at The University of Chicago Comer Children’s Hospital, whose focus is making sure child safety seats are installed properly.
About 85 percent of the time they aren’t, she says. Most of the time, Turner discovers they are too loose to protect their precious cargo in a crash.
So before you head off to this year’s holiday gatherings, take a moment to check your seats. If you still aren’t sure they are in properly, your local police or fire department may have a certified child safety technician available to check.
Some common problems
1 Do not attach toys to the infant seat carrier handle. Those can slap the baby in the face. Also do not attach head cushions in car seats that did not come with the seat. Those cushions are not crash tested with the seat, she says. Instead, tightly roll a receiving blanket or towel and put it on the side of your child’s head.
2 Do not leave the carrier handle up since in an accident the baby’s head can hit it, she says.
Turner says parents should remember babies must be 1 year old and 20 pounds before they should sit facing forward in the car. Many parents mistakenly believe it is either 1 year old or 20 pounds, she says. The two factors combined guarantee that the babies have enough head and neck control to sit facing forward, she says.
3 Most seats today have a five-point harness system, which buckles at one central point. Make sure you listen to hear the click to make sure it’s secure.
4 Make sure the buckling clip is at the baby’s arm pit level.
5 Remember, if you can pinch more than an inch in the strap, it’s too loose. Also, after you put the seat belt through the belt path in the seat, if you can move the seat more than an inch, it’s too loose.
Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, the seat still wiggles more than an inch. To fix that, Turner suggests pulling out as much of the seat belt as you can, feed it through the belt path in the seat and then pull it back into the seat belt’s retractor system. Check both sides of the belt to make sure they are tight.
Also, don’t keep a snow suit or other heavy clothes on your child as you strap them in. The extra material pulls the harness strap away from your child, making it too loose.
With infant seats, Turner says one of the most important things to remember is the seat must be level to the ground. Most seats now have an indicator on the side.
Sometimes, getting the seat level is a challenge. Turner suggests cutting up a pool noodle into three or four sections to use under the base to lift the seat.
6 Convertible child seats allow you to use the seat facing forward or facing rear depending on your child’s age. Under 1 year old and facing the rear, the straps should be at the shoulders or below. For ages 1 and above, the shoulder straps should be at the shoulders or above.
7 This is an example of a convertible infant seat. Convertible seats start at 20 pounds and seat 80 to 100 pounds, depending on the seat.
After your child reaches 40 pounds, remove the seat straps and use the vehicle’s seat belt instead. The harness straps are only crash tested at 40 pounds, she says. When using the seat belt, use a shoulder strap adjuster to make sure it fits correctly and is comfortable.
Trouble also comes as your kids get older because they want out of the safety seats. The National Highway Transportation Safety Association reported in a recent study that more than 80 percent of kids who should be using a booster seat are not. Illinois law requires booster seats for all children ages 4 to 8, 40 to 80 pounds and under 4 feet, 9 inches.
The seat belt should rest at the shoulder and the lap belt should sit at the hips. Kids risk internal injuries in a crash if they are not sitting at the appropriate height in the car, she says.
The fact is bigger kids don’t like sitting in boosters. Turner says rather than fight about it every time you get into the car, make it a fun game.
8 This shows a short-back booster seat. To get a tighter fit, use a slip guard or slip-proof rubber shelf liner, she says.
9 This shows a high-back booster seat. Turner recommends a high-back booster seat if your vehicle doesn’t have a built-in headrest in the back seat.
10 Lastly, even if you think you have your seat in correctly, make sure you do periodic checks. Push down into the butt of the seat and pull on the seat to check tightness.
Photos by Josh Hawkins
Erica Turner spends her days trying to make sure all the kids she encounters make it home safe.