Buckling your baby into their car seat can be a challenging process, especially if you’re a first-time parent. You may be asking yourself how snug their harness straps should be or how to properly install the car seat in the first place. While you may be able to improvise in other aspects of parenting, this is one area you’ll want to get right. After all, car seats are often installed incorrectly, with rates as high as 85% in some cases, which means you’ll want to get car seat installation down pat.
Whether you’re bringing your newborn home from the hospital for the first time or taking them to visit their grandparents, feeling confident that you know how to properly install a car seat will make the process a lot easier and smoother for you both. Keep reading to ensure your baby is safe and secure before you hit the road.
Before you harness your baby into their car seat, take time to go over the safety checks below.
- Read the Manual: It’s always recommended that you read through and understand the instructions before installing the car seat. While you might be tempted to figure this out yourself, the instructions contain imperative safety and setup information you won’t want to skip. You might be able to watch a reference video on your car seat manufacturer’s website or contact their customer service team for additional help.
- Use a Rear-Facing Car Seat for Newborns: A car seat for a newborn must be either a rear-facing infant-only car seat, a convertible car seat set in rear-facing mode, or an all-in-one car seat set in rear-facing mode. According to the AAP, this is the safest way for an infant to ride in a car. This way, the baby’s head, neck, and spine are supported. The angle of your rear-facing car seat also helps to keep your baby’s airway open.
- Choose a Location In Your Car: You will need to decide where you would like to place your car seat in your vehicle. Rear-facing car seats cannot be placed in front of an active airbag. Instead, your car seat should be placed in the backseat either on the outside seat or in the middle. We recommend using the seating position that facilitates the best installation.
- Install the Car Seat: Car seats can be installed with either the vehicle’s seat belt or with the LATCH anchors in the backseat — but not both! To locate your lower anchors, use your vehicle manual or look for the lower anchor symbol at the seat bight of your vehicle’s seat.
- Check for a Tight Installation: Using the manufacturer's instructions, installation videos, or other resources you will always finish by checking for a tight installation. To do this, simply grab the car seat at the base (near the belt path) with both hands and move it back and forth and side to side. If the car seat moves more than one inch in either direction, then you’ll want to reinstall it.
1. Place the Baby in the Car Seat
Before placing your baby into the car seat, loosen the harness straps and unbuckle the crotch and chest clip, placing them to the sides of the car seat so they’re out of the way. Now, you’re ready to place your baby in the car seat. You’ll want to make sure your baby’s back touches the back of the car seat.
Pro Tip for Winter: If the weather is cold, you can dress your baby in multiple thin layers and then place a blanket over them after buckling them into the seat. Your baby should never wear puffy or bulky clothing in the car seat.
2.Harness Your Baby
Next, you can slip the harness straps over your baby’s shoulders as though you’re putting a vest on them. In some car seats, the harness straps can be adjusted to come through multiple slots, which is useful as your baby grows. However, no matter their size, the harness straps should always be at or slightly below their shoulders. Refer back to your manual (or manufacturer videos) for help with this. Depending on the model, you may need to rethread the straps through harness slots. Some new models also have an adjustable headrest with no-rethread harness for extra simplicity.
The harness then comes over the baby’s hips, allowing you to insert each buckle tongue into the crotch buckle between the baby’s legs. As soon as you buckle the baby in, most car seat buckles make a "click" sound. In different car seats, the crotch buckle can be adjusted in multiple positions, but it should be as close to the baby's body as possible. We recommend double-checking that both clips are fastened by giving them a slight tug. Next, pull all of the harness’ slack out around the baby’s hips to ensure the harness is snug. Once that’s completed, you’ll want to buckle the chest clip.
3. Tighten Harness Straps
To tighten the straps, you’ll want to pull the straps toward the baby's shoulders and then pull the harness adjuster strap, repeating this process until you cannot pinch any material at the shoulder. If there are shoulder strap covers, move them down so they don’t prevent the harness from tightening.
The straps shouldn’t be twisted, nor should they be too tight or too loose. To determine the fit, we recommend conducting a simple pinch test. All you’ll need to do is try and pinch the strap between your fingers at the baby's shoulders — if you can pinch it then it needs to be tightened more!
Pro Tip: If you are afraid the harness is too tight then you can do a reverse pinch test. Pinch the harness at the shoulder and tighten it. Once the material leaves your fingers make sure you can't pinch anymore. This can give you peace of mind that the straps are tight enough but not too tight.
Once you’ve finished tightening the straps, you can bring the chest clip up to the baby’s armpit level.
Remember, each car seat model is different, so you’ll want to keep those instructions handy and revisit them every step in the process. Once this last step is complete, you and your baby can be on your way!
Aside from following your car seat’s safety instructions, here are a few other safety tips to follow below:
- A blanket should be placed over your baby and tucked in (not underneath the car seat straps) to keep them warm.
- If you are traveling on long trips, take your baby out roughly every hour and a half for a break to relax and stretch.
- Don't use aftermarket accessories (these are cushions/toys, mirrors, seat protectors, headrests, etc). Only use what came with the actual car seat itself.
- Car seats should not be used for sleeping.
If you’re a first-time parent learning to use a car seat, don’t worry! Be sure to read through the whole manual and practice a few times before using it. Once you have the car seat installed, you can even find a car seat inspection station where a certified technician will inspect the installation for free. Once it’s time to buckle in baby, revisit this article or watch our demo on securing your child so you can feel confident securing them into their car seat. Be sure to check out more car seat tips and parenting guides on our blog!