Car seat safety is extremely important. Making a mistake during car seat installation is so easy to do, but the good news is, using proper car seat safety techniques can avoid most injuries. We caught up with pediatrician and certified child passenger safety instructor Alisa Baer M.D. to explain how we can keep our little ones safe during short and long distance travels.

Here are common ways to practice proper car seat safety:

1. Make sure harness straps are tight enough.

Most parents worry about making the car seat straps too tight on their baby. Surprisingly, it's quite difficult to make the straps too tight, in fact, most parents leave the straps too loose.

Tightening the harness straps is like a two-step dance: one must pull firmly upwards on the shoulder straps to remove hip/belly slack and then pull up on the tail to tighten the straps.

2. Make sure the car seat is properly installed.

Did you know that 95% of all car seats are not used properly and are loosely installed? In a loose car seat, the child's body is more likely to hit hard structures in the car like the window, door, or the seat in front of them. To be on the safe side, be sure to use one of the two car seats installations:

Seat Belt Installations:

Seat belt installations can be tricky because many people forget to lock the seat belt when installing the car seat. When we ride around, our seat belt is loose while driving and then locks when someone slams on the brakes. A seat belt holding a car seat can not be loose while driving—and must be held tight around the car seat using at least one of the following three locking methods:

  • Seat belt locking device built INTO the child's car seat. If you'll be installing with a seat belt—like is necessary in the center of 95% of cars—splurge and get a seat with a built-in seat belt locking device to make installation much easier.
  • Seat belt locking mode built INTO the vehicle's seat belt. Since 1996, seat belts in the US have a special locking mode to hold a car seat tight. If this locking mode tilts your baby's car seat (which commonly happens on bases and rear-facing convertible seats), use one of the other locking methods to keep your baby's car seat tight.
  • Seat belt locking device added ONTO the vehicle's seat belt. A locking clip—a metal H-shaped clip—can be added onto a shoulder/lap belt to keep it tight around the car seat. Locking clips are challenging and require two people for the installation, so be sure to visit someone trained for help.

LATCH Installations:

LATCH installations use lower anchor straps (often called LATCH straps) to ensure the child is safe. Unlike seat belts, LATCH straps have a locking mechanism built right in to hold themselves tight. But you still have to pull them tight. Where and how you pull the LATCH strap can mean the difference between getting the strap tight or not.

Whether you use LATCH or a seat belt, the safest way to install your car seat is to get help. Take an hour and visit someone trained in your area to get one-on-one help with the installation of your child's car seat.

3. Don't be afraid to stay rear-facing as long as possible.

Rear-facing is the safest way to ride. Period. Astronauts ride rear-facing for blast-off and re-entry as it's is the only way the body can tolerate the G-forces involved. Rear-facing spreads the forces along the entire back, cradling the head and neck, unlike forward-facing where the head and neck are violently thrust forward.

Many parents turn toddlers forward-facing because the legs looked scrunched, but kids are more flexible than we think. Just like your toddler doesn't wake up with a sore neck after a nap in the umbrella stroller with their head on their chest, your toddler won't be uncomfortable sitting cross-legged in their rear-facing convertible seat.

4. Make sure straps are properly buckled.

Anytime baby is in the car seat (even if it is in the house or on the stroller), keep the straps fully buckled and keep the car seat either strapped into the car or locked onto a stroller.

5. Avoid wearing jackets while in car seat.

Puffy coats keep us warm by trapping a layer of air as insulation, but that extra layer can be unsafe in the car seat. While you typically can't push much of the air out when tightening the harness, the extreme forces in a crash do, leaving the baby buckled in straps that are now way too loose to protect optimally. In winter, it's best to add thinner, tighter layers under the car seat straps—and save the puffy layers for over the car seat straps.

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