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How to install your car seat: A comprehensive guide

carseatsweightThe most important aspect of buying a car seat is being educated on how to install it properly. Every seat we sell provides superb protection for your child on the go, but the safety features of the seats will only work properly if the seat is installed correctly.

It’s a good idea to consult a Child Passenger Safety Technician (CPST) and have them check your installation – you can find one through many local police or fire departments. Search your zip code at http://www.seatcheck.org/ to find one near you. Or, just come to Magic Beans – we’ve got CPSTs on staff.

In the meantime, though, this guide will familiarize you with some of the basics.

Shopping for a car seat? Our Car Seat Buying Guide will help you make an educated decision!

Some Common Misconceptions About Car Seat Installation

Myth 1: LATCH installation is safer than seatbelt installation.

Truth 1: LATCH, which stands for Lower Anchors and Tethers for CHildren, was designed because parents found it difficult to install their car seats using the seatbelt. It’s about ease of use, not safety. The only difference is that LATCH only can be used up to 65 pounds (including the weight of the car seat), so for longer use, you’ll need to switch to using a seat belt.

Myth 2: You need a CPST (Child Passenger Safety Technician, or car seat tech) to install your seat or else it isn’t legal.

Truth 2: CPSTs are here to help educate you on how to install your car seat correctly, not to install FOR you. It is your responsibility to learn to correctly install your car seat, but asking a CPST for help will greatly improve how comfortable you are with installation, and they can answer any questions you may have as well. If your local police or fire department does not have a CPST service, come to Magic Beans! We have CPSTs on staff, and we’ll give you a hand.

Myth 3: All car seats can fit into all cars.

Truth 3: Car seats and cars come in all shapes and sizes, and not all of them match up perfectly. Magic Beans has plenty of floor models and we encourage you to try them out in your car before you purchase.

Choosing a Location For Your Car Seat

In most cases, it is recommended that you install your car seat in the middle back seat, because it is away from potential side impacts and side curtain airbags. Unfortunately, most cars only have LATCH positions on the outboard seats, so that may affect your choice to use LATCH versus seatbelt installation.

Another factor that affects where the car seat is installed is how far back the driver and passenger seats are located. If you’re taller, this can narrow your choices of car seat, because legroom in the front subtracts car seat space in the back. Again, try a seat out in your car before you buy, and make sure that the seat is not touching the forward seats.

Seatbelt Installation Tips and Tricks

1) Most cars have locking seatbelts where you can pull the seatbelt all the way out, and you will hear a ratcheting sound as you let the slack back into the retractor. This means that the seatbelt is locked, and your car seat can be safely installed by tightening the base or seat and feeding the belt back into the retractor until you achieve the correct tightness.

2) Many higher end car seats are equipped with a seatbelt lock-off. This clever mechanism can take the place of locking a seatbelt retractor, and can often make it easier to get a nice tight fit. All you have to do is feed the seatbelt through the proper belt path, buckle it in, tighten, and then lock down the seat belt lock-off.

3) Older or lower-end car seats will include a locking clip which is a metal clip shaped like an uppercase letter “I”. This should be placed like a belt buckle about an inch from the buckle after tightening the belt. This method is the most difficult to achieve a correct installation, so several attempts may be necessary.

Levelling Your Car Seat

Now that you have determined the position of your car seat, now the level must be checked to ensure a good installation. Read your manual thoroughly and follow the directions, since the process is a little different with each seat. Here are some types of levels:

  • Line Level: Some seats have just a line on the side. That line must be parallel to the ground to ensure the seat is correctly levelled.
  • Bubble Level: A bubble level is easy to read and fairly easy to interpret. Usually the bubble should just fall between the two outer lines. Some newer seats have different parameters, and the manual should be consulted in these instances.
  • Ball Level: This is easy to read but often harder to interpret. Ball levels are a little plastic ball on a curved track with indicators on the side showing where the ball should lie.

A few car seats require you to change the recline as your child grows older; consult your manual to determine when and how to do this.

Checking Tightness

The last step to see if the installation is correct is to test the tightness. The way to do this is to give it a hard wiggle at the belt path. There will be some movement, but the key thing is to make sure that this wiggle is not more than 1 inch side to side.

Installation Considerations for Different Types of Seats

Infant Car Seats: Some newer infant car seats feature a Load Leg, a feature which you’ll see more commonly in Europe. This is usually attached to the base of the infant car seat, and is a safety feature that decreases movement in the event of a collision. This Load Leg can only be used on the outboard seats in most situations, because many cars have a hump in the middle seat floor (fun fact: that’s where your transmission is!).

Convertible Car Seats: A feature that is present in all convertible car seats is the Top Tether. This is part of the LATCH system, and should be used at all times. It serves the same purpose of the infant car seat Load Leg, decreasing movement in the event of a collision. Higher seats will provide the option of using this top tether while rear-facing, but all seats will have this feature while forward-facing. There is a metal bar behind most seats in the car that will sport a logo with a boat anchor on it. This is the correct place to hook in your top tether.

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