Car seat safety guidelines to know

Perhaps the scariest part of bringing baby home is the ride home itself. Our children are our treasures, which is why it’s essential that you don’t simply wing it when it comes to installing child safety seats, says Jennifer Homan, trauma program coordinator for Franciscan Health hospital in Crown Point. “It’s best to see a certified child passenger safety technician from the get-go,” she says. “It only takes a half hour, but it can save a life.”

Homan cites statistics that some 90 percent of all child safety seats are either improperly installed or improperly used. How can concerned parents and caregivers ensure their children’s safety in vehicles?

Know the Guidelines

Do keep your child rear-facing for as long as possible, advises Sgt. Robert Taylor of the Hammond Police Department. It’s recommended that children remain in rear-facing child safety seats until at least the age of two or up to 65 pounds. “A child in a rear-facing seat receives more protection in an accident—in particular, there’s less stress on the spine and neck,” Taylor says. To accommodate current child safety seat recommendations, there are several convertible safety seats on the market that allow children to remain rear-facing up to 40 pounds or more.

Don’t add unsafe or unnecessary items to, or under, your child’s car seat or harness. Homan says, “Some of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen involve adding things to car seats that aren’t safety tested or that adversely affect the way that the five-point harness fits, such as head supports, blanket sleepers, and seat belt pads.” She adds that children in seats with five-point harnesses should be dressed in a regular layer of clothes, nothing bulky, particularly puffy winter coats during winter. “Wearing bulky items such as big coats causes big gaps between the child and the harness, allowing the child to slip out of the seat in the event of an accident.” Instead of coats, she says, place blankets over your secured child while traveling.

Do ensure that the car seat and harness are tightly secured. Car seats should be tightly secured so that, when tested, they don’t move more than an inch side-to-side or front-to-back, says Taylor. To check that the harness is properly secured, Taylor advises doing the pinch test: When your child is secured in the car seat, pinch the webbing of the harness material at your child’s collarbone. If your fingers don’t slide right off of the webbing and you can pinch any of the material, it’s too loose.

Don’t skip reading the owner’s and child safety seat’s manuals. Parents and caregivers may be short on time, but it’s important that they read and refer to both the owner’s manual of their vehicle as well as the child safety seat manual for proper child safety seat installation and usage. From instructions on using your vehicle’s LATCH system or seat belts to child safety seat height and weight limits, the manuals contain essential safety information. “The engineers who designed the car seats are the ones who’ve crash-tested them,” Taylor says.

Not Just for Babies

Do secure your older children. Younger school-aged children—typically those aged four to eight—should be in booster seats until they can sit safely with seat belts alone, Homan says. Although this is usually the age of eight, the true test of a child’s readiness to sit secured without a booster seat is when she has reached an appropriate height and weight to do so. “The seat belt should sit across the child’s hips and shoulder, not the belly and neck, and not tucked behind the child,” she says. “Improperly fitting seat belts lead to injuries, especially abdominal ones as children don’t have as much belly fat as adults, which makes them more prone to belly injuries.” Taylor adds that even older children should remain in the back seat until they are 13 years of age, or at least 4’9” and 80 pounds. “The passenger side air bag is a danger to undersized children sitting in the front passenger seat, as serious injury or death can occur if the air bag hits the child in the head during an accident,” he says.

Make It Fun

Don’t make safety a drag. Nothing kills a child’s enthusiasm and encourages stubborn resistance like boring safety have-to’s, so make safety fun. Taylor recommends keeping children in safety seats with five-point harnesses for as long as possible, but acknowledges that active children are often resistant. To add some cool appeal to the five-point harness, he advises parents to tell their kids that race car drivers use five-point harnesses, too. And, if wily kids try to sneak out of their safety restraints while the vehicle is moving, use the destination itself as a safety incentive. “If your child has a favorite place to go, let him know that the seat belt or harness has to stay on for the entire trip. Tell him the first time it comes off, we go home.”

For Taylor, Homan and other certified child passenger safety technicians, a passion for keeping kids safe is the incentive and motivation for what they do. Taylor says, “If we can save a child’s life, it’s worth it.”

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