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The Optimal Newborn Car Seat Position for Your Baby’s Safety

Chicco KeyFit 30 Infant Car Seat image

It’s no secret that parents want the best for their babies in every aspect of their lives, and travel is no exception. However, navigating the myriad of recommendations and guidelines for finding the correct car seat position to protect your newborn can feel overwhelming.

In this article, we’ll discuss everything you need to know about correctly positioning a newborn in a car seat based on authoritative advice and best practices. Whether you're a first-time parent or seeking a refresher, this guide will empower you to make informed decisions and provide peace of mind as you embark on journeys with your newborn.

The Importance of Correct Car Seat Positioning

Properly positioning your newborn in a car seat and installing it correctly is fundamental to safeguarding their safety and well-being in the car. Correct positioning significantly reduces the risk of injury in the event of an accident, as it helps protect newborn’s developing necks and spines. It also protects their airways, ensuring their respiratory health during travel.

Properly installing a car seat also minimizes the likelihood of the seat shifting or becoming dislodged during transit, thus reducing the risk of injury. Overall, proper car seat installation protects your little ones in their earliest stages so they can continue to thrive throughout their lives.

Overview of Newborn Car Seat Types

There are four types of car seats suitable for newborns. While all four are suitable options, it’s important to understand their differences before choosing one.

  • Infant Car Seats - Infant car seats are rear-facing only car seats that offer specialized support and safety features specifically designed for newborns and infants. Their portable design (unique among the four options) allows for seamless vehicle transfers and compatibility with strollers, catering to busy parents' needs. They are typically used from birth until the baby reaches the seat's maximum height or weight limit, usually between 1 and 2 years old. It’s important to note, however, that newborns with low birth weights (anything less than 5.5 lbs, according to WHO) will need an infant car seat rated for low-weight use to ensure their airways are adequately protected.
  • Convertible Car Seats - Convertible car seats transition from rear-facing seats for newborns and infants to forward-facing seats for toddlers and young children. Although they are more expensive upfront than infant car seats, they accommodate children from birth to 65 lbs or 49 inches tall, making them a cost-effective option for parents who want a single seat to grow with their child. Convertible car seats have adjustable features that adapt to your child’s growth and provide extended rear-facing capabilities. These adjustable features also allow your child to remain in a forward-facing car seat longer than other models to ensure safety and comfort throughout your child's early years. It’s important to note, however, that convertible car seats do not have carry handles or detachable bases, meaning that they are not portable and do not snap into a stroller. Also, you’ll have to purchase one car seat for each vehicle you plan to regularly transport your baby in.
  • Rotational Convertible Car Seats - Rotational convertible car seats offer the same functionalities as regular convertible car seats but have the added benefit of a swivel base. This base allows you to rotate the car seat toward the vehicle door, making it easier to take your baby in and out of the car seat. When in transit, the base locks to secure your little one. This innovation provides parents with an ergonomic and user-friendly solution for correctly positioning their child in a car seat.
  • All-in-One Car Seat - All-in-one car seats transition from rear-facing car seats to forward-facing car seats to booster seats. This versatility ensures long-term safety and comfort for children, accommodating them from birth until they outgrow car seats and booster seats, typically at 100 lbs. or 57 inches tall.

Selecting the Best Location in Your Car for a Newborn’s Car Seat

Choosing the ideal location for placing the car seat in the vehicle helps ensure your baby’s safety. Rear-facing seats cannot be placed in front of an active airbag, so the backseat is the safest option. Properly installing a car seat is key to protecting your little one, so we recommend placing it in whichever seat best facilitates installation.

When considering where to place your car seat in the vehicle, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does your car have LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tether for Children)? LATCH is a car seat attachment system that doesn't require vehicle seat belts. If your vehicle is equipped with this feature – which most car seats and vehicles manufactured after Sept. 1, 2002 are – you may opt to position your car seat where LATCH is available.
  • How much legroom does the driver need? If the driver’s vehicle seat has to be positioned farther back and prevents the car seat from fitting properly in the seat behind the driver, you will need to pick another location.
  • Do you park your car on the street? If so, consider placing the car seat on the vehicle's passenger side so you can take your child out of the vehicle on the side of the car that doesn’t face the road.
  • Is there a hump in the center of the backseat, and is it wide enough to safely accommodate the car seat? If the center of the backseat is not flat or wide enough, you may want to place the car seat on either side of the car.
  • Will there be other children and car seats in the backseat? If so, you may want to place the car seats on each side of the vehicle to ensure they will not interfere with each other and that both car seats can sit correctly on the vehicle seat.

Proper Reclining Position of the Car Seat Base

Making sure that the base of your car seat is properly reclined on the seat of your vehicle before attaching the car seat is key to your little one’s safety and comfort. Rear-facing car seat bases should follow the manufacturer’s instructions to be slightly reclined, ensuring the car seat's angle naturally keeps the newborn's head back and their chin off their chest. To ensure your infant car seat base is reclined correctly, follow the manufacturer’s instructions and position the car seat base on the vehicle seat as instructed before attaching the car seat.

While each manufacturer has different ways to help parents determine the best recline position, Chicco car seats use bubble indicators. Ensuring the bubble level aligns within the designated lines—as outlined in the instruction manual—ensures the optimal angle for your newborn's safety and comfort.

For more information, check out our installation videos.

Chicco KeyFit 35 Infant Car Seat bubble level image

Installing a Newborn Car Seat

To set up a newborn car seat, you can use either the vehicle seat belt or LATCH, but not both. Both methods are equally safe, so choose the one that gives you a confident, tight, and secure fit.

Start the installation process by reviewing the owner's manual for both your vehicle and your child's car seat. These manuals provide specific instructions and guidelines tailored to your car model and the car seat you're using. Then, determine whether you'll use the vehicle's seat belt or LATCH system.

Next, place the car seat (or car seat base if opting for an infant car seat) in the desired location in the vehicle. If using the seat belt, thread it through the designated belt path on the car seat and buckle it securely. If using LATCH, attach the lower anchors to the corresponding anchors in the vehicle, typically located in the crease of the seat. Follow the car seat manufacturer's instructions for proper attachment.

After securing the car seat, tighten the seat belt or LATCH straps to remove any slack. Then, perform the "inch test" by grasping the car seat near the belt path and attempting to move it forward and from side to side. If the car seat moves more than one inch in any direction, it's not securely installed; you’ll need to uninstall it and start over.

Proper Harness Straps Adjustment

The car seat’s harness must fit properly to adequately protect your newborn. For rear-facing car seats, position the straps at or below the child’s shoulders, ensuring the child stays securely cradled within the car seat. Avoid having the straps too low by using the highest setting possible while remaining at or below your tiny passenger’s shoulders. Lastly, place the chest clip at armpit level.

After adjusting the harness, perform a “pinch test” using two fingers to attempt pinching the strap lengthwise at the shoulder. If you can pinch the strap between your fingers, it’s too loose and requires further tightening. If the strap can’t be pinched, the harness is properly tightened, and you’re ready to hit the road!

Infant Insert Usage

An infant insert is a specially designed car seat component that provides additional support and proper positioning for newborns and smaller infants. Infant inserts boost your baby to sit comfortably in the ‘V’ of the seat—the area where the back and bottom of the car seat meet—ensuring comfort and safety. By boosting the child up, the infant insert shortens the distance between the bottom of the seat and the shoulder straps, ensuring that the straps are at or below your child's shoulder level in a rear-facing car seat.

There are many styles of infant inserts, including:

  • Inserts that provide head and body support
  • Inserts that are installed at the bottom of the car seat
  • Inserts that come in two separate pieces

All of these inserts are safe and effective when used properly.

It's important to note that not all car seats require an infant insert for safe use. Only inserts made by the manufacturer and intended for use with the specific car seat are considered safe. Aftermarket products should not be used as they are not crash-tested with the car seat.

Read our “When Should You Use the Infant Inserts in Your Car Seat?” article for full instructions on how to use and install an infant insert.

The position of your newborn’s head in their car seat significantly impacts their ability to breathe. Allowing their head to slump forward, for example, is dangerous as it can prevent them from breathing deeply, especially on longer car rides.

In rear-facing car seats, it’s recommended that your newborn’s head be turned to the side or positioned straight back. This positioning naturally keeps their head back, reducing the risk of airway obstruction. Properly reclining your car seat supports this.

4 steps to securing your baby safely in the car seat image

Should a Newborn’s Head be Repositioned if it Turns to the Side?

It's unnecessary to reposition a newborn's head if it turns to the side in a car seat, as this movement is a natural reaction. Newborns have limited neck muscle strength, and turning their heads to the side is a reflexive behavior to help them find a more comfortable position. The recline of your car seat should allow them to turn their head to the side safely.

Should you Place Blankets or Burp Cloths Around a Baby’s Head in the Car Seat?

Using blankets or burp cloths as makeshift inserts around an infant in their car seat is not recommended, as it can compromise your child's safety. These materials can interfere with the fit of the harness and may compress in the event of a crash, increasing the risk of injury. They may also shift with your baby’s movements and cover their face. Car seats are rigorously tested and certified for safety, and any modifications, including the addition of off-market inserts, can void their effectiveness. It's essential to follow the manufacturer's instructions and use only authorized accessories to protect your newborn.

Ensuring the safety and comfort of your newborn during car travel is a big responsibility. By understanding and implementing proper car seat positioning and harness practices, you can significantly reduce the risk of injury and ensure a safe journey for your little one.

Visit the Chicco Baby Talk Blog today for more tips, guides, and expert advice on infant safety and parenting. When it comes to navigating parenthood, Chicco is here for you every step of the way.