How to Properly Secure Your Child in the Car Seat

Child in Car Seat | Central Mass MomDisclaimer: I am not a certified Child Passenger Safety Technician (CPST), however I am well versed in car seat safety. When in doubt, check with a local certified CPST!

Fun fact: In the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, it is a state law that children ages 8 and below must be restrained in a car seat while in a moving vehicle. These laws also tell us that kids as old as 13 should still be in the back seat and possibly still booster seats if their feet cannot sit flat on the floor with the buttocks all the way to the back of the seat.

Car Seat Safety Standards Have Changed

Jeez, I don’t even remember a booster seat when I was a kid. I think I was riding “shotgun” (do the hip kids even say that anymore?) when I was 7. Remember riding in the bed of the pick-up truck? Yup. Things have really changed. How often do you hear “But did you die?” or “Well, I survived it”? Well friends, that would be because you were not in a horrific accident when you were sitting in the backward seat in the rear of Mrs. V’s Volvo. 

A lot has changed because cars have changed, the amount of traffic has changed, the way we drive has changed, and more research has been done that has pushed for improved safety standards. Because of these new safety standards, when kids are properly secured in the car, you truly will be amazed at how much these devices protect these kids. 

However, if they are not properly secured in their device, the outcome can be devastating. Working on an ambulance for 13 years, I have seen the best and the worst of these scenarios. Because of my trade, I chose to learn more about safety for children. When I became a mother myself, I dove deep into all the studies, papers, consumer reports, etc. I needed to know all the things.

Did you know that most people don’t know how to properly secure their kids in their own car seats?! Yikes. NO SHAMING HERE. No one ever taught me. Not a single person explained to me how the seat should be installed, how my child should sit in it, how the buckles should clip, etc. No one shows you and those silly instruction booklets can just be confusing. The illustrations make no sense. How are you supposed to learn how?

Here is a general guide on how to make sure your child is safely secured in a 5-point harness car seat. 

1. Place your child in the seat. The buttocks should be up against the back of the seat and their back should be flush against the back of the seat.

*There should be nothing between the child and the seat. (No towels, pillows, piddle pads, etc)

2. Position shoulder straps. One strap over each shoulder, kind of like putting on a backpack.

*Nothing should be between the child and straps, aside from a thin layer of clothes. No bulky clothes, jackets, blankets, etc.

*For rear-facing: Straps should be at or below shoulder height.

*For front-facing: Straps should be at or above shoulder height.

3. Buckle between the legs. Click in each belt, making sure not to pinch any fabric or debris in the buckle.
4. Tighten the straps. Up at the child’s shoulders, try to pinch the strap. If you can’t pinch any slack, then it is tight enough. If it is digging into your child it is too tight, loosen up a smidge.

Too Loose:                           Just right:


5. Position the chest plate. It’s called a chest plate, chest buckle, chest clip, etc. because it MUST be over the chest. I usually say that it should be over the nipples, however, it’s a lot easier to see their armpits. So the top of the buckle should be about armpit level. Or smack over the nipple line. 

*Make sure that the buckle is not too low, otherwise the buckle can cause internal damage in the event of an accident. Make sure it is not too high, or this could cause strangulation. 

Important Sidenotes

  • Any cushions, covers, etc used in the car seat should only be what is sold with the car seat or approved by the manufacturer to use in conjunction with THAT seat. You should not use “aftermarket” products in the seat that have not been crash tested with the seat. (ex. The infant cushions that come with the car seat you purchased are safe, but the Graco cushion from your infant car seat should not be used with your Britax convertible car seat)
  • AAP used to recommend children under age 2 remain rear-facing. However, new recommendations are under 4 years of age OR until they max out the height and weight limits for the seat (please refer to your seat’s owners manual).
  • Installation of infant, rear-facing, forward-facing, and convertible seats all vary, but the general premise of how the five-point harness should fit a child is the same. 

Need more information on car seat installation and safety?

Find a CPST near you here.

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