Car Seat Mistakes That Can Be Deadly

You’re a careful parent and have been securing your tot safely because, unlike some parents, you read the car seat manual. But are you sure you’re using that baby car seat correctly? Are you sure that car seat would protect your little one in case of a crash? One study published in the Journal of Pediatrics found that fully 95 percent of parents of newborns use their child’s car seat incorrectly! Now, that’s terrifying, but that’s not the purpose of this post. Its purpose is to list down 12 deadly car seat mistakes parents make unknowingly and how to avoid them. 

In this article, I hope to help you join the 5 percent of parents who install and use their child’s car seat the right way. If you have to read only one article on, make it this one. Because you love your baby and want them to live long enough to give you a few grandkids someday.

9 Shocking Car Seat Mistake Statistics

In the study above, certified car seat technicians assessed the installation process and general seat use. Then, they compared what they saw with the safety recommendations from the NHTSA.

The technicians came up with a nice little list of common mistakes that parents of newborns make. Below are 9 sobering car seat safety stats that’ll have you consult a certified CPST soonest possible:

1.95 percent of all parents of newborns positioned their baby the wrong way in the infant car seat.

2.77 percent of those who participated in the car seat mistakes study installed the seat incorrectly.

3.69 percent of babies ended up with a harness that wasn’t tight enough.

4. Even though all cars these days come with an easy-to-read recline angle indicator, 40 percent of seats were reclined incorrectly.

5.11 percent had their straps twisted. Twisted straps are somewhat less safe and you have no guarantee they’ll adequately restrain your child in a crash.

6. Nearly 33 percent didn’t attach the lower anchors as securely as they should have.

7. Where the safety mechanism was a seat belt, 50 percent had an unlocked retractor.

8. A staggering 44 percent of installed baby car seats moved more than the recommended limit of 1 inch.

9. About 40 percent of families actually installed unregulated car seats.

In this post, you’ll learn at least 12 life-threatening mistakes parents often make. More importantly, you’ll learn what to do to avoid these mistakes. I’ll start with the most obvious of them all – not reading the car seat manual.

Car Seat Mistake #1: Not Reading the Car Seat Manual

One of the biggest mistakes you can make as a parent is not reading your baby’s safety car seat manual. Well, that’s obvious, but it’s not uncommon for some moms and dads to kind of forget or even ignore the seat manufacturer’s use instructions.

Have you been in a child-care forum where moms and dads kept asking whether they should drench or soak their child’s car seat safety straps?

All manufacturers know (and state that on the care warning labels) that washing seat straps destroys their internal structures. So does using chemical compounds such as bleaches, pet cleaners, stain removers, and laundry additives. These substances can easily remove the strap’s fire retardant coat.

If those genuinely inquisitive parents had read the car seat manual, they’d have learned the basics from the get-go.

Below are other mistakes you should be aware of and avoid:

11 Deadly Baby Car Seat Mistakes You Should Avoid

Here they are:

  • Not securing the baby car seat securely and tightly enough which allows it to move too much in all directions
  • Fitting the safety harness incorrectly by allowing too much slack when securing your baby
  • Using uncertified aftermarket car seat parts that your car seat manufacturer doesn’t approve or recommend
  • Unsafe shoulder strap and harness height
  • Bundling up your child before putting them in their seat
  • Using twisted straps to secure your child
  • Transferring your baby from a rear-facing position to a forward-facing position earlier than you should
  • Introducing your kiddo to the adult seat belt too early
  • Assuming your car is spacious or not spacious enough at the back
  • Buying old car seats or installing hand-me-downs whose history you know nothing about
  • Assuming double coverage is best

1. Assuming Double Coverage is Best

When it comes to securing car seats, there’s such a thing as too much protection. If you secure your baby’s seat through LATCH, you don’t need to use the seat belt. Not at the same time.

While using the seat belt and LATCH at once might be tempting, it’s a bad idea. Car seat and auto manufacturers don’t recommend using these seat attachment systems together. And if anything happens to your child, your car seat company can easily wiggle out of any and all liability because you did an incorrect seat install.

Remember, car seat makers don’t test the efficacy of the LATCH/seat belt combo. So, you’re never sure whether the seat would hold in a crash.

Fix: Use what the manufacturer recommends. And definitely don’t use both LATCH and seat belt at the same time.

2. Having the Car Seat Move Too Much

Car seat technicians say that a correct install has the seat not shifting more than 1 inch in any direction. That seems pretty straightforward, but almost 45 percent of seats as per the study in the intro budged more than 1″.

Why shouldn’t the seat shift too much? Because if it does, that’s a sign that you have not secured it properly. And that in the event of a road accident, you never know what would happen. Ejection isn’t something any parent wants to think about, ever.

Here’s the Fix:

Y0u probably won’t like this one! But read the manual no matter what. Even car seat technicians read the manual before installing a new seat. Because they know that car seat providers don’t recommend the exact same install instructions for each and every product they make.

Every seat is a different entity, and you should treat it as something different than anything you’ve dealt with before. I hate reading manuals, but you MUST make a little sacrifice for your child when it comes to installing their safety seat.

The seat belt needs to follow the correct path as it passes through or around the car seat. Also, pay attention to your vehicle’s and car seat’s weight limits and restrictions. That’s super important.

Once you’ve completed the install, be sure to have a certified car seat technician (CPST) inspect it. Make sure to arrange for the checkup before the delivery date.

3. Using Accessories the Manufacturer’s Not Approved

While the federal government regulates baby car seats, it doesn’t regulate related accessories. As a result, it’s easy to buy and an uncertified after-market accessory or product. I’m talking about after-market parts such as car seat covers, child head positioning devices, back supports, chest clips, and whatnot.

What’s the risk here? That uncertified aftermarket chest clip might look completely harmless now. But it could immensely hurt your child internally when subjected to impact forces.

Fix: It’s best to use standard accessories that have been tested and certified as adequately safe for use with your specific seat model. Even better, do not use accessories at all unless specified in the car seat manual.

4. Your Child Wearing Twisted Straps

Seat straps work most effectively when they are straight and lying flat on your baby’s small body. If the straps get twisted when securing your kid, correct that immediately.

twisted seat belt pic
A twisted strap doesn’t do the safety job optimally so fix it

Here’s the risk: Twisted straps are less likely to distribute crash impact evenly on the body of your kiddo. Their body is small and vulnerable. And a twisted strap doesn’t know which body parts should receive more impact.

In the end, a twisted strap doesn’t provide all the safety a properly threaded strap would.

What to do: Take a look at that strap. If it’s twisted, well, solve the problem. How do you fix a twisted seat belt? Here’s a sub-1-minute video on how to solve a twisted seat belt.

To fix a twisted seat belt strap, pull out the webbing until it is nice and firm. Then, create a sort of triangular fold just behind the latchplate. Then, holding the fold down with one hand, use the other hand to pull the latchplate all the way through and problem solved. It’s not hard and you definitely don’t need help.

5. Not Tightening the Harness Enough When Fitting It

A child’s safety harness should fit snugly. That means it shouldn’t be too tight that it breaks their fragile bones. But that doesn’t mean it should be slack. In fact, slack can and does compromise a harness’ safety.

Here’s why a loose harness is a bad idea:

If the harness isn’t tight enough, your child’s delicate body has a bit of distance to travel in a crash.

Now, mass x distance = force. That small body gathers a little momentum which ends up on the harness. If there’s too much slack, that forward force of your child’s body can lead to injury.

It gets even worse. Because the backward reactional force from the harness can end up on your little one’s soft spine. And that’s a terrifying thought.

Another reason to tighten the harness correctly is that a loose safety device lets the restrained child slip their arms out. With their arms sticking out of the harness, the ability of the device to fully secure the child in an accident decreases.

Here are two easy fixes:

snug safety harness
A snug harness

Fix #1: Tighten that harness to the point where you can’t put more than one finger between the harness and your child’s body. That’s an easy fix.

Fix #2: Do and pass the Pinch Test on the straps of the harness. But how do you perform the pinch test?

How to Do the Harness Strap Pinch Test

To perform the Pinch Test on a child’s car seat harness to determine if it’s snug enough, give it a shoulder pinch. If your fingers struggle to fold the strap and actually slide off the harness, it’s taut enough. But if you can pinch the strap between your fingers, the harness isn’t tight enough and needs further tweaking.  Before you carry out the test, buckle the harness and tighten it to a place where you feel it’s tight enough. Here’s a harness pinch test video created by

6. Setting the Harness/Strap at the Wrong Height

Why having the correct shoulder harness height matters: If a crash occurs or you have a sudden stop, you want the harness to be able to restrain your small child. But full protection won’t happen unless you have the harness shoulder height.

One more thing: If shoulder height is too high, that makes the harness somewhat loose. And a loose harness is never a good thing.

Let’s now correct the mistake: 

How you set the shoulder harness height when securing your child depends on the type of car seat you have. Below is the advice car seat technicians give regarding adjusting harness shoulder height:

  • If you’re using a rear-facing car seat, position the straps coming out of the infant car seat at the shoulder or slightly below the shoulder.
  • If your child is using a forward-facing car seat, the harness straps should come out of the seat at the shoulder or slightly above the shoulder.
  • What if your kiddo sits in a booster seat and is secured by a seat belt? In this case, make sure that the seat belt passes over the upper part of the thighs or somewhere below the hips. The safety belt shouldn’t run across the kid’s belly. As for the shoulder strap, it shouldn’t be touching the head or neck.

But How Do You Adjust Harness Shoulder Height?

forward facing harness adjust
Image Credit: Orbitbabyusa

This is where choosing a baby car seat with multiple harness slots helps. If the car seat offers a rear-facing position, use the harness slots located at or below your baby’s shoulder. Turn to the slots that sit closest to the shoulder if there are some located below the shoulder. Here’s a useful video on how to adjust harness shoulder height correctly.

And if you’re adjusting harness shoulder height for a forward-facing car seat, use the harness slots at or above the shoulder line. Where your harness features some slots above the shoulder, make the adjustment using those closest to the child’s shoulder.

rear facing harness adjust
Image Credit: Orbitbabyusa

7. It’s Cold Today, So I’ll Bundle Up My Child

When it’s cold outside, every good mom or dad puts on as many layers as are necessary to keep their little one warm. And that’s OK, but not if the child uses a baby car seat. That puffy, heavily padded jacket can keep things nice and cozy for your loved baby. But there’s a good reason your child shouldn’t wear any kind of padded or puffy clothing.

The risk involved: Fluffy padding compresses when in the face of a crash’s impact. When a bulky winter coat, snowsuit, or any other kind of cold-weather clothing compresses, the harness becomes loose to some extent. And of course, the thicker the puffy coat, the looser the harness gets. And the looser the harness, the less safety.

Let’s Investigate Why Padded Coats Are a No-no in a Car Seat

If you think bundling a child in a car seat isn’t unsafe, he’s how to know for sure whether it is or not. Put a thickly padded winter coat on your child and put them in their seat. Then, buckle the harness and tighten it. In fact, tighten it a bit more than you normally do.

Finally, unclip the harness and remove the jacket from the kid. Try to do the harness tightness Pinch Test and see what happens. Are you comfortable with all that slackness? I’m sure you’re now 100% convinced.

Here’s the fix: 

Put thinnish, warm clothes that are still reasonably warm on your baby. If the child still isn’t warm, you can place a cover over them while they’re in the harness. But make sure they can breathe. And that the environment underneath the cover doesn’t get too hot and uncomfortable. Keep an eye on that kid.

8. Moving From the Rear-facing Position Too Soon

forward facing position

The NHTSA and car seat safety experts advise parents and caregivers to keep a child rear-facing for as long as possible. There’s a big reason for this oft-repeated advice. Riding rear-facing is safer than riding without a restraint or with a seat belt.

The risk involved: 

Why do children safety experts want your baby to ride rear-facing long enough? It’s because children’s bodies are different than adults’. Babies and toddlers have bigger heads in proportion to their bodies. They’re head-heavy, so to speak, and that’s risky in a car crash. Their necks are not strong and muscular enough to adequately support their massive melon against impacts.

The fix: According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), you shouldn’t move your child to a forward-facing position unless they’ve reached the recommended height and weight limits.

For most convertible car seats, most manufacturers recommend moving to the forward-facing position at 40 pounds. According to Stanford’s Children Health, most kids reach 40lbs at or around age 2. But if your child still fits in their rear-facing seat at age 3 or even 4, don’t move them.

9. Some Children Move to the Seat Belt Too Early

Another common car seat mistake parents make is moving children from a booster seat to the adult seat belt too early. If they switch too soon, the chances are that the seat belt won’t fit properly. And you never want your little cutie

But how early is too early? There are a few clear signs that a child isn’t mature for the adult seat belt. And here’s how to correctly determine if your child is ready to use the belt without a booster.

How to fix the mistake: learn how to determine when your child is grown enough to use the adult seatbelt. The link in the previous section explains how.

10. Installing Used Car Seats, Bought or Hand-me-downs

It’s tempting to buy a used car seat from someone and save a few bucks in the process. Or install an older sibling’s seat for a younger child.

But what’s the problem, if any, with buying a used car seat? You may not know for sure how the previous owner had used the seat. Maybe the seat has reached expiry. Or maybe it was involved in an accident at some point. Or even recalled for not meeting the required safety standards.

Is It OK to Buy a Used baby Car Seat?

You can in some cases, but you should be very careful when buying a secondhand seat. There are places you can find decent, clean, certified, thoroughly checked secondhand seats. Research adequately before purchasing, though.

If money is tight, you can certainly use a hand-me-down if you trust the giver and are comfortable with how they used the seat. And if a seat an older child used is still in good condition and it’s expired yet, your baby can use it.

Fix: Make sure the used seat has enough life left from its manufacture date. You should find the manufacturer-stated expiration date on the seat. If the date isn’t visible, contact the manufacturer with the model number.

If the seat has no labels at all stating the date of manufacture and other important information as required by your state’s safety laws, don’t buy it. And if you don’t know ALL the details about the seat’s history, skip the deal.

11. Assuming Your car Is/Isn’t Spacious Enough at the Back

Your car is as spacious around the backseat as it is. No more no less.

Some vehicles seem roomy enough. But you might not safely fit three car seats across the back. In such vehicles, the configuration of the middle backseat might not allow you to install three baby safety seats. Or the seats might have bases that are too wide making it impossible to fit in three seats.

On the other hand, your car might seem smaller, but it might be larger at the back than you imagine. It can fit three seats across the back without challenges. And the middle seat and the seatbelt have the right configuration.

How to Fit 3 Car Seats Across the Back

Fitting three seats across the back can be very changing and in some cases impossible. Saferide4kids recommends these suggestions:

1. Find narrower car seats and bases. Chicco KeyFit and Cybex Aton are good examples of narrow infant baby car seats. Diono Radian is a narrowish convertible seat, but Combi Coccoro is the narrowest it ever gets.

2. Consider replacing one of the seats with a RideSafer Travel Vest.

3. When fitting the seats, alternate rear-facing and forward-facing options. For example, you can install a rear-facing seat in the middle of the backseat while placing a forward-facing seat on either side.

4. Install all three seats using seat belts instead of LATCH. Why? Seatbelts allow you to install seats a little closer to the doors compared to LATCH.

5. Make sure to install forward-facing baby car seats where they can work with the top tether.

6. Install the middle seat first as that makes things easier.

Note: Replacing any of the seats should not make the remaining two loose. If it does, that means you’d installed the seats incorrectly.

Final Thoughts On Baby Car Seat Mistakes

Now that you’re aware of all the mistakes you possibly have been making, it’s time to take action. But installing child safety car seats can test your patience to the limits. Still, you must prioritize the safety of your child during rides.

The tips I’ve given you here aren’t the entirety of what you need to know about child car seat safety. But I want to believe you picked up an idea or two from reading this resource.

Keep learning. Learn everything you can from the car seat manual and your local certified CPST. It might not feel like the most exciting thing you’ve ever done. But your child’s life is more precious than time and everything else you have.

Author: Esther Moni

I'm Esther Moni, a proud stay-at-home mom and a psychology graduate of the United States International University (USIU) . I hate it when anyone calls me a housewife, because what does housewife even mean? Being a mother of two babies and a pup, Bailey, as well as being Ricky's wife tires me to no end, but I still manage a smile at the end of it all. And when my boys aren't done doing mischief, I juggle writing a post on parenting or baby gear performance for this blog and running my little counselling office based out in Nairobi. <a href="">Visit my Facebook profile here</a>, and this is my <a href="">LinkedIn profile</a>, and here's my <a href="">nascent youtube channel.

Esther Moni

I'm Esther Moni, a proud stay-at-home mom and a psychology graduate of the United States International University (USIU) . I hate it when anyone calls me a housewife, because what does housewife even mean? Being a mother of two babies and a pup, Bailey, as well as being a wife tires me to no end, but I still manage a smile at the end of it all. And when my boys aren't done doing mischief, I juggle writing a post on parenting or baby gear performance for this blog and running my little counselling office based out in Nairobi. Visit my Facebook profile here, and this is my LinkedIn profile, and here's my nascent youtube channel.