An OK car seat installed correctly is safer than the best car seat on the planet installed incorrectly. Some car seats such as infant car seats and convertible car seats from Graco and many other companies have an angle indicator to help parents know when they have the recline angle set right. Also, the best car seats have built-in mechanisms designed to prevent mistakes during car seat installs (or make them less likely to happen).
No matter what car seat model you have make sure to install it the right way. This is the only way to guarantee your LO maximum protection during a car crash. In this post, you’ll learn not only how to install a car seat correctly, but also a few car seat installation tips that help make the process a success.
It’s Easy to Install a Car Seat the Wrong Way
Here’s a profound car seat installation statistic that every parent needs to know: Only 5 percent of people install car seats and position kids in the car seat correctly. This means that a staggering 95 percent of parents and other caregivers misuse car safety seats!
95 percent of people install or use car seats wrong! [Source]
Common Car Seat Installation Mistakes
What are some common mistakes well-meaning moms and dads make when installing a car seat? 86 percent of participants in a study made at least one mistake when positioning baby while 77 percent made car seat installation errors and sometimes baby positioning mistakes.
But there’s more: nearly 45 percent of installed car seats move more than 1″. A properly installed car seat doesn’t shift more than 1″ side-to-side. Why 1″? Because if a car seat moves more too much, there’s a greater likelihood that the crash energies will impact the little passenger more than they affect the car seat or the car!
Also, over 50 percent of car seats installed using the vehicle’s seatbelt system had an unlocked retractor. As for those installed via the LATCH system, less than 33 percent of the seats had a loose attachment to the lower anchors.
Another common error was using the wrong seat belt path. Also, some participants use the lower LATCH attachments in the middle seat. And slightly over 10 percent of people installed ended up with twisted straps.
Infant Car Seats Should be Pretty Easy to Install, But…
A bunch of CPSTs watched moms install a car seat (in the study above) and 95 percent of the seats were infant car seats. Infant car seats are supposed to be pretty easy to install, at least easier than installing a convertible. But mistakes happened no matter the seat type being installed.
The numbers above come from a 2015 car safety seat use study conducted by a team of researchers led by pediatrician named Benjamin D. Hoffman. Dr. Hoffman also happens to be a CPST, a role he’s played since 1997. It can’t get better than that. And BTW, this research was published in the Journal of Pediatrics.
These stats terrified me the first time I read it, but I’m here to help you learn how to perform this critical task correctly each time to avoid nasty surprises.
But Why Are Installation Mistakes So Common?
According to the study, one reason we make mistakes when installing car seats is that car seat manuals have many specific recommendations, and they’re not always easy to understand.
While anyone can install a car seat incorrectly, the study noted that those who didn’t speak English tended to make mistakes more often versus those who did.
The researchers found another interesting thing: the likelihood of incorrectly making a mistake when installing a car seat increased inversely in relation to level of education and income.
Add in the fact that many people don’t even read the car seat manual, and you have a whole bunch of caring caregivers who make innocent mistakes. And some of these mistakes can lead to disastrous results.
2 Methods of Installing a Car Seat
There are two ways to install any car seat. You can install a car seat via LATCH or using the vehicle’s seatbelt. Both methods work and make for a safe and secure install if done correctly, but many people find installing via the lower anchors of the LATCH system somewhat easier.
Some older vehicles may not have LATCH, but beginning September 2002, the federal government requires all automakers to equip their products with a LATCH system.
Can you use both LATCH and seatbelt to install a car seat? In most cases, you can’t do that because most vehicles don’t have the mechanisms that’d allow installation using both attachment methods. In the end, you must decide which method to use every time you want to travel with your kiddo. Besides, no evidence shows that using both car seat attachment methods increases safety.
Is LATCH safer than seatbelt when installing a baby car seat? According to Clek Inc., both car seat installation methods are safe if you handle the install correctly. Be sure to read the user manual and implement all the recommendations given. BTW, LATCH is an acronym for Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children.
However, there are situations where you can’t install the car seat using LATCH. If the child’s weight surpasses the stated LATCH weight limit, you shouldn’t use LATCH. The only option in such a situation is to use the seatbelt.
But when installing a forward-facing car seat of any kind, you MUST use a tether strap in addition to whichever installation mechanism you’re using, whether LATCH or seatbelt.
How to Install a Car Seat Using LATCH
Car makers typically position LATCH anchors on two seats, and they rarely put either of the 2 anchors on the middle seat. The anchors are normally located on the outside seats, one anchor on each seat.
LATCH has two main parts namely the lower anchors and tether anchors. Tether anchors are basically a ring or hook used to secure the tether strap when doing a forward-facing install.
Where are the tether anchors in a car? This ring or hook (metal) is normally located above the car’s actual seat or behind this seat according to the Car Seat Lady. In sedans, the tether anchors are found in two places: either on the back of the backseat or on the panel behind this seat.
In SUVs, pickup trucks, hatchbacks, and an overwhelming majority of minivans, look for the tether anchors in these 3 places: on the floor, on the inner side of the roof, or on the backseat.
What are lower anchors in a vehicle and where are they located in a vehicle? The lower anchors are 2 small horizontally positioned bars found where the bottom and back cushions on the backseat meet.
In some vehicles, there may be two sets of anchors, and reviewing the car maker’s manual should make this clear to you. Below is an easy-to-follow car seat installation via LATCH guide for you:
Car Seat Installation Guide Via LATCH
Step #1: Look at the base of the car seat you’re about to install and locate the lower anchor strap. This strap normally features two hooks. These hooks attach to each of the two lower anchors on either side of the backseat.
Step #2: Route the LATCH anchor strap through the correct belt path. One of the mistakes parents make when installing a car seat is to route the LATCH strap via the wrong belt path. As you route the LATCH strap, make sure you don’t create twists.
The belt path used for rear-facing installs isn’t the same belt path used for forward-facing installs. Here’s a simple rule to help you decide which belt to use: the correct belt path for a forward-facing install or a rear-facing install is one that’s nearest to the back of the vehicle’s seat.
Car manufactures these days are trying to make it less likely to use the wrong belt path. To achieve this aim, they make the LATCH webbing/strap long enough to reach the correct belt path but too short to reach the other belt path. And that’s smart.
Another way that car makers try to reduce belt path choosing mistakes is by using different colors to indicate each belt path. If more people actually read the labels on their car seat, they’d be way less likely to use the incorrect belt path.
What happens if you use the wrong belt when installing a car seat? When you install a car seat with the seatbelt or anchors in the wrong belt path, you’re endangering your child’s life. Any car seat installed that way won’t be able to do the crash protection job as intended, and this can compromise its protective ability.
The people over at SafeKeepers LLC have a video showing the potential outcome of incorrect belt routing. The car seat can easily flip over or shift/twist in a way that increases injury risk to the young passenger.
Helpful tip: If the seat needs to face forward, use the forward-facing belt path and if rear-facing, definitely use the rear-facing belt path. Read the labels on the car seat closely to know the correct belt path for the install. In some cases, the labels may be vague, but watching a few YT videos should help.
Step# 3: Find the lower anchors. Where these anchors are depends on the type of vehicle you own. The vehicle’s manual knows where these anchors are. Read it.
Step #4: Once you find the lower anchors, push the connectors in. Keep going until the connectors click into place. Apply some pulling force to test whether the attachment is safe. If you notice any excess webbing, pull even more. And as you pull, make sure to push the base or car seat down.
Step #5: Look at the angle/level indicator (sometimes it’s a line other times a bubble). Make the necessary adjustments to get the desired recline angle.
Note: With some cheap car seats, getting the seat to recline at the correct angle can be difficult. This is mainly because most cheap infant car seats lack an adjustable base.
If you face difficulties when reclining the seat, refer to the manual for information on whether you can use a pool noodle or a rolled towel. For example, you can’t install the cheap Cosco Mighty 65 DX (not an infant car seat) correctly without using a rolled towel.
Step #6: This is the final step, but it’s a super important one: Perform the car seat tightness test. I keep coming across comments where someone says that their car moved a lot after the install. But I have learned that for the most part, this happens because the person is doing the “tightness test” all wrong.
Here’s the correct to test whether a car seat has installed tightly and securely enough: Hold the car seat close to the belt path and give it a moderate shove. How much force should you use when testing for tightness? Use as much force as you would use in a firm handshake.
If the car seat shifts more than 1″ front-to-back or 1″ side-to-side, the install needs a bit more work. Keep pulling and adjusting until you have a nice and firm install.
How to Install a Car Seat Using the Seatbelt Method
As a parent, you MUST learn how to use your vehicle’s seatbelt to secure a car seat. Why? Because not all vehicles come with a LATCH system. And even if your vehicle features LATCH, your kid may be heavier than the recommended LATCH weight limit.
One beautiful thing about using a seatbelt to secure a car seat is that ALL vehicles come with a seatbelt system, which means you’ll always have a way to carry your child safely no matter what where your adventures take you. Planes, cabs, trucks, cars — there’s always a seatbelt waiting for you to use it.
But the most important reason to learn to use to install a car seat via a seatbelt is that seatbelts don’t have a weight limit. You can install any car seat with a seatbelt and rest assured that it’ll do the job as intended.
What’s more, using the seatbelt makes it possible to install a car seat without its base. That’s how parents who fly a lot with an FAA-approved infant car seat install it on the plane. Planes have no LATCH, so there’s no way to attach a LATCH or ISOFIX-only car seat on a plane.
But how do you find your car’s LATCH weight limit? It’s easy. Look at the vehicle manual as well as the car seat manual. You should be able to find this information there.
Installing a Car Seat Using a Seat
Follow the steps below when installing a car seat via your vehicle’s seatbelt system:
Step #1: Locate your car’s belt path. You’ll find it on the car seat.
Below is what a seatbelt looks like: It’s basically a hole or opening.
Step #2: Route the seatbelt through the correct belt path. If you’re doing a rear-facing install, obviously use the rear-facing belt path and if it’s a forward-facing install, definitely use the forward-facing belt path. As you route the belt, don’t leave any twists.
Step #3: Route the seat belt strap via the correct belt path and then buckle the seat belt.
Step #4: Slowly pull the seat belt out of the retractor until you hear a distinct click. When you hear that click, you know that you’ve pulled this belt all the way out.
Step #5: Feed all the slack in the seat belt back where the belt came from — into the retractor. As you do this, listen and feel for a ratcheting motion. If this doesn’t happen, get the car’s manual and learn if there’s some mechanism (usually a button) for switching from one mode to the other.
Step #5: Pull the seatbelt strap, feeding it in until it’s nice and taut. If it’s not nice and taut, it may not hold the car seat securely in the event of a crash. Every step is critical, but this one is super important and the car seat’s protective ability hinges on it.
If installing the seat forward-facing, make sure to connect the tether strap to secure the top of the car seat. You must do this whether you’re using LATCH or seatbelt.
Step #6: Adjust as need to get the recline angle where it needs to be as per the angle indicator.
Step #7: Test the just-installed car seat for tightness. To perform this little test, hold the seat around the belt path (as you did using LATCH above) and shove it a bit side-to-side and front-to-back. A correctly installed car seat never moves more than 1″ in either direction. Make any adjustments needed to ensure perfect tightness.
Note: some retractors lack the Automatic Locking Mode. This sometimes happens in older vehicles. If this is the situation you’re working with, use the buckle’s latchplate to lock the seatbelt strap. Read the owner’s manual to learn how to do this. It’s not hard.
If you’re still facing challenges at this point, get a belt-shortening clip. This is a metal clip that enables you to tackle the seatbelt’s slack. Your local CPST should have this small metal clip, and you want to contact them for help. You can find a car seat technician here or here.
There you’re! That’s how you install a car seat with a seatbelt. It’s not too hard, and it becomes pretty easy after a few trials.
12. Car Seat Tips Every Caregiver Needs to Know
Below is a nice little list of car seat tips every vehicle owner who uses car seats needs to be aware of:
Tip #1: Never leave a baby sleeping in a car seat. This is how to avoid death via suffocation or strangulation according to Joe Waweru, a registered nurse (RN) who partners with us at kiddofreedom.com.
Tip #2: You can use a car seat on a plane as long as it’s not a boost car seat or in the booster mode. It needs to be an aircraft-approved car seat. Here’s a list of 4 FAA-approved car seats and one car seat alternative, a CARES harness.
Tip #3: Instead of putting a car seat (with baby in) on the top of a shopping cart (this can be risky), use a good baby carrier. But you can put the car seat in the cart’s shopping basket.
Tip #4: Don’t rush your kids out of rear-facing seating or forward-facing seating. Wait until they’re mature enough to start using the next car seat up. The booster seat is for kids who stand at least 4’9″, and they need to pass the so-called five-step test.
Tip #5: If the car seat doesn’t fit your kiddo anymore, stop using it and instead find a better-fitting option.
“I have seen my fair share of 2-year-olds riding in booster seats and each time I shook my head and muttered, “That’s risky and irresponsible. They need to stop this”, says Joe Wareru, a registered nurse who reviews any medical statements we make here.
Tip #6: Creativity has its place in the world, but following installation instructions is what works best when it comes to car seats. Never use a bungee cord or anything else to secure a car seat. Because nothing is as strong as LATCH or seatbelt in terms of countering crash impacts.
Tip #7: Make sure to use the safety harness correctly. In rear-facing seating, secure the straps of the harness at the shoulders or slightly below the shoulders. For forward-facing seating, secure the straps at or above the shoulders. Make sure the straps are nice and snug each time you buckle in your baby. If you can pinch some slack after you have fastened the harness straps, this means you need to tighten the device further as it’s too loose.
Tip #8: If you like saving money (who doesn’t?), you may be tempted to buy a used car seat. This isn’t always a bad idea, but if you can’t ascertain whether the car seat has ever endured a car crash and its expiration date, get your baby a brand-new car seat.
Tip #9: A cheap but properly installed car seat is safer than an incorrectly installed expensive, tech-packed car seat with all the bells and whistles. Learn how to do the right thing or have a qualified car seat tech do it for you.
Tip #10: Always consult the car seat manual and the car owner’s manual when installing a car seat for the first time. Be sure to learn which belt path to use for which install and where it’s located. And if you’re unsure of anything, ALWAYS have a car seat technician give the install a look-over before starting to use the seat.
Tip #11: When installing a forward-facing car seat of any kind, always remember to secure its top by using the tether strap. Rear-facing-only car seats don’t typically use a tether strap, BUT a few of them do. Check the manual to learn if the RFO car seat you’re about to install needs to work the tether strap.
Tip #12: Firefighters are really nice folks, and they might be willing to help a poor mom or dad install their car seat. However, a CPST I know says that firefighters aren’t always sure of what they’re doing, so contact a real car seat tech.
Final Thoughts On How to Safely Install a Car Seat
Car seats may look simple, but they can get pretty complicated when installing them. Be sure to read the car seat installation manual, and if that’s not helpful for some reason, watch YT videos or consult a car seat technician (rather than a kind firefighter).
Whether installing forward-facing or rear-facing, first learn where the belt path and know for sure which belt path to use each time.