Safe in the Seat

How to Know Car Seat is Installed Properly

If you’ve been following us for a while, you may have realized there’s a lot you didn’t know about your car seat. It’s not just about buying a nice seat for your child. It’s about making sure it’s the right fit, it’s buckled correctly, and, of course, it’s installed properly. The first step to true car seat safety comes with proper installation. This step can be frustrating, since installation can also be the most difficult part of the process. 

If you truly want your child to be safe in the seat, you must confirm you installed your car seat correctly. Because installing the seat properly is vital for your peace of mind and your child’s safety, we’ve dedicated a whole post to this topic! Here’s how to know your car seat is installed properly: 

How to Know Your Car Seat is Installed Properly 

Step 1: Read the manual. 

First up, read the owner’s manual. Yep! This is not like the instruction manual that came with your blender—this is critical information you need to keep your child safe. No matter how many car seats you’ve used in the past or what type of car seat you’ve purchased, reading the manual is the only way to know how to safely use your specific seat. (Read your vehicle manual too!) 

Every car seat is a little different. Read the manual cover to cover and keep it close by as you install and adjust. Then store it in the car seat’s designated manual storage location. All car seats have a manual storage location, and you’ll need that manual again! Your fast growing child will soon be ready for the next car seat stage. When that time comes, you’ll need to grab that booklet again and read through the required changes for the next safe stage—whether that’s a convertible seat, a backless booster seat, or anything in between! 

Step 2: Double check height and weight. 

While you’re reading that car seat manual, take note of the height and weight limits for every mode of your car seat. Make sure to follow those closely. Don’t move your child before they’re ready and never keep your child in a mode they’ve outgrown. Both can hinder safety in a crash!

One of the biggest transitions you’ll make in your car seat journey is the switch from rear facing car seats to forward facing car seats. You’ll notice with rear facing seats, your child has a weight and height minimum and maximum. Make sure you hit that maximum before you switch to front facing! Also pay special attention to any fit-based requirements for your car seat. For example, most rear facing seats require your child to have at least one inch of clearance above their head. This helps make sure their head stays contained and doesn’t strike anything if a crash happens; it’s important! But many parents miss this detail and use an outgrown seat without even realizing it.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the American Academy of Pediatrics, Safe in the Seat, and most other vehicle or child safety organizations recommend rear-facing as long as possible. It provides the best protection from injury and death for young passengers. 

So, to confirm your seat is installed correctly, make sure you know what mode to use! If you moved to front facing too early, don’t worry. It’s not too late to switch back. And if your child has already hit the maximum, ‌move up immediately. Car seat position is one of the most important parts of proper car seat installation!

Step 3: Install on level ground.

When you do your car seat installation, make sure you’re on level ground. Most rear facing car seats and some forward facing car seats come with a recline indicator, but most recline indicators depend on gravity! To confirm you have the correct orientation and recline of your seat, check it on level ground. Pro tip: gas stations are always level, so you can double check that recline setting the next time you fill up your tank!

Step 4: Decide if you’re using LATCH or belt.

There are two ways to install every car seat. You can use the vehicle’s LATCH system or seat belts. The LATCH systems are innovative anchors installed directly into your vehicle seat. These are standard in all vehicles made after 2003. Harnessed car seats offer both options for installation, but they don’t allow both at the same time (except for Nuna Pipa bases and forward facing Clek Foonf seats, thanks to their rigid latch design). Think about it like contacts and glasses — while there are a few people who use both, for most of us our vision would get worse if we wore our glasses and contacts at the same time! Latch OR belt. Not both. 

So, confirm your seat is installed with one or the other. If you’re using LATCH, also check that vehicle manual to make sure you’re using an approved seating location — many vehicles don’t have, or allow, LATCH install in the center seat! If you are currently using the LATCH system, though, check the maximum weight. Your vehicle’s latch anchors DO have a weight limit. To find out the child’s maximum weight for latch use, head to your car seat manual! The latch weight limit is car seat specific, so the car seat manufacturer will give you that number. Once your child reaches that weight limit, you must change to seat belt installation. When you have it installed with the seat belt, ensure you lock the seat belt for a solid fit. 

Step 5: Utilize the top tether. 

The top tether is one of the most neglected parts of the forward facing car seat install process. This is because when you’re rear facing, you don’t use the top tether. So, if you’re not reviewing your manual frequently, you may miss this important addition when you turn your kiddo forward facing. 

First, locate your vehicle’s top tether anchors. In sedans, they’re found on the rear dash behind the headrests. In SUVs and minivans, they’re usually on the back of the vehicle seat, but they may also be in other places, like the ceiling. Luckily they’ll be labeled, and the vehicle manual can help you locate them too! If you’re installing in a pickup truck, check that vehicle manual right away, because the top tether situation can be a bit more complicated. But that’s not a reason to skip this important safety step!

In some vehicles, there won’t be a top tether anchor in all backseat locations. But this isn’t an excuse either! The top tether is so important for forward facing harnessed seats that we would never recommend going without it. You may need to rearrange your backseat — rear facing seats and belt-positioning boosters don’t need top tethers, so you can position those riders in locations that lack tether anchors, and save anchor locations for forward-facing harnessed seats. Keep everyone riding safely!

Step 6: Check for twisted straps.  

Twisted straps anywhere are no good. No good at all. Whether it’s the seat belt you’re using to install, the harness straps, or the top tether, a twisted strap reduces the integrity of the belt. This means it won’t perform like it should in a crash. So, ensure none of your straps are twisted and adjust if they are. 

Step 7: Make sure the seat doesn’t move. 

If your car seat is installed correctly, it should not move or slide from side-to-side more than an inch in any direction. You’ll check this by firmly grabbing that car seat right at the belt path — which is where the seatbelt or latch strap comes out of the car seat to attach to the car — and giving the seat a firm handshake. If it moves too much at the belt path, you’ve got to tighten it up — but movement elsewhere on the car seat, such as near your child’s head, is normal and expected. Only check at the belt path! If you’re having trouble, check out this hack to get a super tight fit really easily! 

Step 8: Remove aftermarket add-ons.

Do you have any aftermarket add-ons in your car seats? This is anything that DID NOT come in the car seat box or from the car seat’s manufacturer. This could be a head strap, added insert, potty-training liner, or harness pads. None of these items are safe! If they’re in your car seat, get rid of them. Vehicle seat protectors may or may not be allowed, so check your car seat manual for input on those. Trust us, the cute or seemingly convenient add-ons aren’t worth the risk. 

Step 9: Book a car seat consultation. 

Still have questions? A lot of people do! Ensuring you installed the seat correctly is very important. So, to help educate and affirm you, we offer car seat consults. As certified child passenger safety technicians, we’re specially trained to help parents like you learn about their seat, how to use it, and, of course, how to install it! We’ll answer any questions you have and get you the perfect fit in our essential car seat consults! 

To ensure your child is as safe as possible on the road, confirm your car seat is installed properly with this handy guide and a car seat consultation. 

Car seats are confusing, but car seats are important. One of the most important parts of your car seat journey is not which one you buy. But, how is it installed? And, how is it buckled daily? Knowing the answers to these two questions is important to keep your child secure in a crash. 

So, don’t waste time, reread that car seat manual today, reserve your car seat consult, and follow our blog and Insta for regular car seat wisdom. Also check out our Infant Course, an online course designed to take you from confused to confident during your baby’s first year of car seat safety.

What’s the driving force behind our mission? Educating caring parents like you on car seat safety to keep kids all over the world safe in the seat. 

Affiliate links are included above. Safe in the Seat earns a small commission when you purchase through these links with no cost to you. We so appreciate your support.

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