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10 common car seat mistakes

Z in his car seat

Car seats are among the most complicated pieces of gear most parents will encounter – probably more complicated than you think, so be prepared! Here’s a list of 10 mistakes a lot of parents make. If anything sounds familiar to you, don’t feel bad: I’ve been guilty of at least 7/10 of the things on this list over the years.

  1. Not reading the instruction manual and labels. Reading instruction manuals can be a drag, but you will learn a lot about your car seat by taking 20 minutes to sit down and really absorb the information on the seat and in the instruction manual. The labels on the seat itself can be an essential resource for information about the proper belt path and lockoff use.
  2. Assuming LATCH is better. LATCH was developed to make installing car seats more straightforward, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll always get a better installation with LATCH than you will with a seatbelt. If you have a newer car, chances are your seat belts have “switchable retractors,” which means that if you pull the seat belt all the way out, as the belt winds back into the retractor, it will lock so you can’t pull it out any further. Once a seatbelt has been “switched” into locking mode, it will do a bang-up job of securing a car seat. Try both methods and see which one gives you the best result.
  3. Not getting the seat in tight enough. A properly installed car seat is very snug. It shouldn’t move more than an inch at the belt path. This means that if you firmly grasp the seat right where the seatbelt (or latch belt) goes into the seat of the car and try to move it side to side it won’t move much, if at all. It usually takes some strength to get a car seat in snugly: some firm pressure on the seat with one hand, while you pull the belt tight with the other. You don’t want to put too much weight into the seat though, so don’t go overboard.
  4. Not getting the level correct. For rear-facing infants, a car seat needs to be positioned at an angle between 30-45 degrees. Most car seats have level indicators of various sophistication that can help you confirm that you’ve got it right. Sometimes the slope of the automobile seat can make it really hard to get the level right. This is basically the only sanctioned form of jerry-rigging you can do with a car seat installation: you can use a rolled up blanket or a section of pool noodle to raise the seat to the correct angle. In a forward-facing position, the seat should NOT be reclined at all (unless the car seat manual says otherwise).
  5. Using the outboard LATCH bars for a middle seat installation. Lots of cars have LATCH bars for the two “outboard” seats (the ones behind the driver and the passenger seats), but not in the middle. A lot of parents assume that it is OK to use the two inner bars to install a car seat in the middle seat using LATCH. Most of the time, this is not correct. Your vehicle manual can confirm this for you.
  6. Not fitting the harness correctly. First, let’s talk about the height of the harness: for rear-facing children, the straps should be at or slightly below the shoulders. For forward-facing children, the straps should be at or slightly above the shoulders.┬áThe harness should be tight enough that you can’t pinch any slack vertically along the strap. Finally, the chest clip should be level with your child’s armpits.
  7. Using a car seat that does not fit the child. Car seats have weight and height limits for a reason, and usually these are clearly stated on the seat itself. Don’t push this. Remember from high school math: Force = Mass x Acceleration. So if a car is traveling 30mph with a 40 pound child, the force in a hypothetical crash would be 1200 pounds. Add just 5 extra pounds of kid and the force increases by an extra 150 pounds. It’s scary, but true.
  8. Using LATCH above the accepted weight limits. Here’s a little known fact: you can only use your LATCH connectors in the car until your children weigh between 40-48 pounds (cross-check your vehicle manual and car seat manual to be sure). After that, if you’re still using your car seat, you need to switch to a seat belt installation. This is because standard LATCH connectors are only made to withstand a certain amount of force (remember the math lesson above?). Sunshine Kids (AKA Diono) developed their SuperLATCH connectors, which can be used right up to the weight limit of the seat in most cars, but those are the only ones on the market that can override the established limits.
  9. Assuming that “more is more.” You might find a locking clip stored on the back of your car seat, but that doesn’t mean you should use it. Unless your car seat manual tells you otherwise, you only need to use one method to lock your car seat into your car. So don’t use LATCH and a seat belt. Don’t lock your seat belt retractor and use a locking clip. These combinations could have unexpected results in a crash.
  10. Going rogue. If you’re trying to install your car seat and something isn’t going right, don’t get out your toolbox. Don’t head to the hardware store or get creative in any way, shape, or form. Installing a car seat isn’t about innovation: it’s about following the rules, because those rules were created and tested by the people who made your car seat. If you can’t get a good installation following the instruction manual, you should find a certified CPS tech to help you or call the customer service line for the car seat brand you have purchased.

It goes without saying that the biggest mistake of all is to assume that you’ve got it right. Whether you’re completely confident or completely confused, get your car seat inspected. You’ll be glad that you did.


  1. This is a great list. My only suggestion would be to include something about how you shouldn’t be in a rush to “graduate” your child to the next step. This is something I encounter often as a CPST. There is going to be an article about this in tomorrow’s edition of USA Today along with a story about car seats doing their jobs in an accident. Thanks for putting this information together to help educate parents.

  2. Great article!

    Just one comment on the pinch test. I believe you are not supposed to be able to pinch any slack horizontally across the strap, as opposed to vertically.

  3. re: Latch weight limit – #8

    I have read this advice a number of websites but have NEVER found mention in it any of my 3 car seat manuals (3 types, 2 brands) or my car manuals. Do you have a citation or example of a source manual? It basically makes latch useless for forward facing seats and I will tell you, would make our trips even more miserable. Not much worse than sitting in a car rental lot with a 2 and 4 year old for even LONGER trying to install car seats on a rental;) Our cars are from 2005 and 2011 so they are not old. Our seats for 08 and 09.

  4. Lauren, I’m not sure which seats you have or which car. I randomly looked at the manual for the Britax Advocate 70 and did find the reference to this on page 42: “Unless specified otherwise by the vehicle manufacturer, assume a 40 pound child is the vehicle lower anchor limit.”

    I totally hear you about travel and rental cars. The only thing I will say is that, with a little practice, you can get very good at installing a car seat with the seatbelt instead of the LATCH.

  5. I did find it in my boulevard (a few years old) manual (finally) you are right. However, it is NOT mentioned in the installation section pages. It is only in the introductory warnings and is the second to last of them on 2 pages of bullets. This important fact is buried behind things like “make sure to register your car seat” and the seat won’t prevent death/injury in all accidents (duh and duh).

    If you happen to talk to the britax people you should tell them It should say first thing in forward facing latch (and lap/shoulder and lap) installtion sections/pages. As someone who used it rear-facing and read the manual a bunch of times then, when we got to the forward facing installation we read the installation pages only it seems. (In fact I have read them many times as it has been installed in planes and multiple cars). It is crazy they include tips like “make sure it is actually connected to” but not that it is inappropriate to use with kids over 40lbs during the installation pages.

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