How to Install a Car Seat: A Guide for Concerned Parents

A child safety seat, often called a car seat for simplification, is a seat designed to provide your child with extra protection during collisions and other safety incidents. While they are, sometimes, integrated into a car’s interior design, they, mostly, have to be purchased and installed. This article provides a complete guide about how to install a car seat, the different options available to parents, as well as other safety considerations that can put the parents mind at ease. Most states and jurisdictions have laws in place requiring the use of state-approved safety seats when travelling in a vehicle with a child. However, these seats only provide passive restraints and need to be installed properly in order to provide better safety. While the process can be easy or complicated depending on factors such as the seat’s size and type of vehicle (among other factors), most research seems to indicate that less than 15% of child safety seats are installed and used properly. Proper installation can be the different between safety and a safety hazard.

How to install a rear-facing car seat

Most rear-facing car seats are made up of two parts – the carrier and the base. The carrier is the removable part of the seat that you can also use to carry your child around. The carriers can, usually, be attached or removed from the base using a button or a lever. The base, however, is the part of the seat that needs to be installed in the car.

The first step in the process is to read the manual, of course, and ask friends, family or the seat manufacturer if there are any unanswered questions. However, perhaps the first thing you need to think of is the location of the installation. If there’s only one child, then the safest place to install the car seat is in the center of the back seat. In case of multiple children, it is recommended to place the youngest (hence, most vulnerable) child in the center of the back seat and the other(s) towards the sides. It may be useful to recline the driver or passenger seat forward to give yourself more room to work with. The actually installation of the seat may depend on the type of seats and their features. (Note: There is no scientifically proven difference in safety in the placement of a safety seat behind the passenger and driver’s seats)

Types of rear-facing car seats

  1. Rear-facing only seats
  2. Useful for infants in 22-35 pounds weight range
  3. Are usually small in size and have handles that can be used for carrying
  4. Usually come with a detachable base that can be left in the car
  5. Should be used, primarily, for travelling
  • Convertible rear-facing seats
  • Can be used as rear facing seats initially and, later, as forward facing for older children
  • Can be used for a higher weight range in comparison to rear-facing only seats
  • Have a multiple point harness that can be used to attach at different points
  • Should be used, primarily, for travelling
  • All-in-one seats
  • Can be used as rear or forward facing seats, allowing them to be used for a longer period of time
  • They are bigger in size
  • May not provide the convenience of being used to carry outside the car due to the larger size
  • They have higher weight limits (usually between 40-50 pounds)

Installation of a rear-facing car seats using anchors

Step 1

Once you’ve made room and placed the rear-facing seat as it should be placed (in the back seat, in the rear-facing position), you should try and spot the seat anchors that are, usually, on or close to the base. Most car seats come with anchor belts that have hooks that can be latched or attached to designated slots in the backseat.

Step 2

If these are included in your vehicle, the hooks should be snapped and attached to these. The anchor belt should, then, be tightened until the base of the safety seat is comfortable placed on the backseat of your vehicle. If you are able to, significantly, move the safety seat from side to side or front to back, the seat has not been installed properly and you need to tighten it further. If you are unable to find the slots, it could be worth having a look at the instruction manual for clarity.

Step 3

            Once the seat has been firmly placed, you should place the child with the back pressed against the child safety seat. You should ensure that the safety harness is firmly attached to the seat and not loose or broken, and that it is placed flatly on the chest of the child. Twists and knots can be uncomfortable for the child. The harness should then be attached to the designated slots near the part of the seat that is close to the child’s shoulders.

Step 4

            The next step is to buckle or attach the safety harness with the chest clip or slot. If there is room for pinching extra material at the shoulder, then the harness needs to be tightened further.

Some Safety Considerations

Some things to consider:

  1. If you need to, you can place blankets over the harness after placing the baby and fitting the safety harness correctly.
  2. If the child is too small or the seat too big, consider filling the empty or loose spaces with small rolled blankets, towels or other comfortable materials.
  3. Ensure that chest clip is at or near armpit level in order to hold the safety harness comfortably in place.
  4. Never hesitate to look at the manuals. Go through them multiple times if you need to.

Installation of rear-facing car seats using seat belts

Step 1

            Once again, the first step should be to read the seat’s as well as the vehicle’s instruction manuals thoroughly. You should be familiar with the vehicle’s seat belt system and have a thorough understanding of the process of attaching the seat belt with the child safety seat. The location and placement of the seat with respect to the seat belt is of the utmost importance.

Step 2

            The car seat should, then, be placed in the preferred and safest spot on the back seat in a rear-facing position. The seat belt should be, carefully, put through the recommended belt path smoothly and without twists. Buckle and lock the seat belt.

Step 3

            The next step is to press the car seat firmly and tighten the belt. If you’re able to move the car seat side to side or front to back with ease, the car seat has not been installed properly. You should then tighten the seat belt further or redo the whole process if required.

Step 4

            The next step is to place the child correctly to maximize safety. Have a look at the manual to determine the recommended angle of recline and place or adjust the seat accordingly. The angle may need to change according to the child’s growth in size and weight.

Some safety considerations

 Similar to the use of anchors, here are some considerations for car seat installation using seat belts:

  1. If you need to, you can place blankets over the harness after placing the baby and fitting the safety harness correctly.
  2. If the child is too small or the seat too big, consider filling the empty or loose spaces with small rolled blankets, towels or other comfortable materials.
  3. Ensure that chest clip is at or near armpit level in order to hold the safety harness comfortably in place.
  4. Never hesitate to look at the manuals. Go through them multiple times if you need to.
Advantages of rear-facing car seats
  • Additional support and protection for the child’s head and neck in case of a collision or other safety incident.
  • The impact is spread out evenly, ensuring the dispersion of potentially fatal force.
  • The belts and anchors don’t become a safety hazard.
  • Protection from flying glass shards and other dangers arising from collision.
  • The child is cradled better and there is better neck support for a sleeping child.
Disadvantages of rear-facing car seats
  • Can be problematic once a child grows taller or heavier.
  • The hooks and buckles can be harder to reach in emergencies.
  • The child is not in the driver’s and/or the passenger’s direct line of site, causing the potential inability to address immediate needs.
  • The children may experience dizziness or exaggerated motion sickness.

How to install a front-facing car seat

Front facing seats should be purchased and used when a child has grown past the limits of rear-facing car seats in terms of height, weight or age. Front facing seats, unlike rear facing ones, are only meant to be used facing just one direction. Convertible or all-in-one variations of rear facing seats can also be used as front facing seat.

Front facing seats can prepare the child for sitting in a car like an adult. It can teach them how to buckle up, and to have a look around at the surroundings, and enjoy the ride. Before you begin the installation process, it is important to go through the instructions manual, even if you have experience with rear-facing seats from when the child was younger and smaller. All seats are different and may have different features. Therefore, you need to be able to understand the placement, angle and other requirements recommended by the manufacturer.

Types of front facing car seats

  1. Convertible seats – These can be converted from rear to front facing seats and vice versa.
  2. All-in-one seats – These are larger seats that can be used as front or rear facing seats.
  3. Seats with harness – These can be used as front facing seats and use a harness to secure the child. These can be used to carry a child that falls within the weight range of 40-65 pounds, depending on the model and manufacturer’s guidelines.
  4. Booster seats – These don’t have a harness and are sued to prop up the child on the backseat. The base is secured to the backseat, whereas a seat belt is used to secure the child.
  5. Integrated seats – These are seat’s integrated into the vehicle’s design by the vehicle’s manufacturer. The recommended weight and height limits may vary. This should only be used once the child has outgrown the rear-facing safety seat limits.
  6. Travel vest – These can be used by older or larger children as a front facing car safety seat. These are useful for kids that have special needs or those who have exceeded the recommended weight limits of other types of safety seats. These are especially useful in vehicles that have lap-only seatbelts on the back seat.

Installation of front-facing car seat using lower anchors and tether (LATCH)

Step 1

            Prepare for the installation process by reading the instruction manuals and making room by shifting the front seats. Place the car safety seat in the back seat in the forward facing position. Then, find the location of the lower and the tether anchors.

Step 2

            The next step is to connect the anchor attachments to the anchors. Ensure that there are no twists in the straps as this can be hazardous as well as uncomfortable.

Step 3

            You should press the car seat and tighten the straps. If you are able to move the car seat significantly in any direction, you need to tighten further or redo the whole installation process.

Step 4

            Finally, you should connect the tether on the car seat to the anchor meant for the tethers and tighten. This can, potentially, limit forward movement in case of a collision or other safety incident.

Some safety considerations

While most safety considerations are common to all types of seats, some are specific to the front or forward facing car seats.

  1. If you need to, you can place blankets over the harness after placing the baby and fitting the safety harness correctly.
  2. If the child is too small or the seat too big, consider filling the empty or loose spaces with small rolled blankets, towels or other comfortable materials.
  3. Ensure that chest clip is at or near armpit level in order to hold the safety harness comfortably in place.
  4. Never hesitate to look at the manuals. Go through them multiple times if you need to.
  5. Some front-facing seats may require you to use the top-most slots for harness placement. These slots are reinforced and can be crucial in preventing a seat from falling forward in a crash or other safety incident.

Installation of front-facing car seats using seat belts and tether

Step 1

            Read the vehicle and seat manuals to have a thorough understanding of your vehicle’s seat belt system as well as the location of the car seat anchors and safety features. Then place the car seat in the desired location while facing forward on the back seat and follow the given guidelines.

Step 2

            The next step is to move the seat belt through the recommended belt path. The belt should be devoid of any twists to maximize comfort as well as safety. One done with this, you should buckle and lock the belt.

Step 3

            You should, then, press the car seat firmly and tighten the belt until the safety seat is comfortable and tightly placed on the back seat. Test the firmness by trying to move the seat sideways and front and back. If there is significant movement, you need to tighten the belt further or redo the whole installation process.

Step 4

Locate the tether on the car seat and connect it to the anchor meant specifically for the tether. Tighten it to ensure that the seat does not fall forward in case of a collision or other safety incident.

Some safety considerations

As mentioned previously, most safety considerations are common to all types of seats. However, some are specific to the front or forward facing car seats.

  1. If you need to, you can place blankets over the harness after placing the baby and fitting the safety harness correctly.
  2. If the child is too small or the seat too big, consider filling the empty or loose spaces with small rolled blankets, towels or other comfortable materials.
  3. Ensure that chest clip is at or near armpit level in order to hold the safety harness comfortably in place.
  4. Never hesitate to look at the manuals. Go through them multiple times if you need to.
  5. Some front-facing seats may require you to use the top-most slots for harness placement. These slots are reinforced and can be crucial in preventing a seat from falling forward in a crash or other safety incident.

Advantages of front-facing car seats

  1. Easy placement and removal of your child. This is especially useful during emergencies.
  2. Your child is within your line of site through the rear view mirror. This makes it easy to talk to, help, and keep an eye on the child. This is also useful to meet your child’s immediate needs.
  3. These are easier to set up and secure in comparison to rear-facing seats.
  4. The child may experience less dizziness and can actually enjoy the ride by being able to have a view of the internal and external surroundings.

Disadvantages of front-facing car seats

  1. There is an overt reliance on the belt. If not fastened properly, the car seat may be ineffective in offering significant protection.
  2. The security measures are within the child’s reach. For instance, they may be able to unhook the seat belts.
  3. There’s a lack of support and protection for the head or neck if the child dozes off or hunches forward.
  4. Some types of front-facing seats, such as booster seats, rely solely on seat belt and, therefore, provide inadequate protection in comparison to rear-facing car seats.

Things to do and consider for extra piece of mind

While, all children even need front-facing car safety seats, it is important to note that the needs, requirements and limitations of the child, the vehicle and the safety seat should be taken into consideration before making any decision. In addition to the pros and cons mentioned above, it is important to take additional factors into account, and undertake more safety measures as and when you see fit. Here is a list of recommendations:

  1. Consider your child’s age, weight and height when choosing between front and rear facing car safety seats.
  2. The placement of the car seat on the backseat may depend on the size of the safety seat, the size of the vehicle and the number of children you may need to install the safety seats for.
  3. Check and recheck the belts, straps and security harnesses.
  4. If you have any doubts about the how, what and why in regards to installing a car seat, don’t hesitate in reading manuals, asking experts and friends for advice or reading authentic material online.

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