When you bring your baby home from the hospital (if you've had a hospital birth, of course!), the nurses and doctors will tell you that you must have an infant car seat in order to be discharged. Some hospitals have different policies; mine watched you strap the baby in but wouldn't touch the car seat or strap the baby in for you. That's probably a liability issue. Of course, everyone wants to make sure that precious cargo makes it home safely - myself included!
You might remember my embarrassing admission a few months back. I'd been improperly installing my son's car seat even though I had read the owner's manual! By the grace of God, my son wasn't injured in an accident during those weeks I was improperly installing his seat. I am a stickler for child safety, especially car seat safety, so I was shocked to see how wrong I had been. If I can make this sort of error, I know anyone can! Certainly, the last thing I'd want to do is hold my tongue here. I'll take my lumps and swallow my pride if it means I can help prevent another parent from making the same mistake.
Before I go into the three key areas that I check for proper use of a carseat, I want to emphasize a few things. First, read your car seat owner's manual cover-to-cover. Second, read it cover-to-cover a second time. No, I'm not joking! I read the manual and thought I had caught every detail but clearly I missed a HUGE one! Every car seat has different specifics, so please look into them. The three areas I'll touch on below are more pointers of places to look for those details, and not prescriptive how-you-do-this-on-all-seats advice. That wouldn't be advisable, because your car seat might be quite different from my own!
Padding And Straps
Now that I've said that every car seat is different, let me (seemingly) contradict myself and say this: No car seat manufacturer performs safety tests with after-market products on the seat. That means that the only things that have passed safety tests are the pieces of the car seat in the box - PERIOD. Car seat technicians will tell you that you should never attach toys to the carry handle, use third-party shoulder strap covers, or put anything between the seat and the baby (like a fancy-looking seatcover).
It's perfectly fine to use shoulder strap cushions that come with the car seat. Make sure your straps are properly position - rear-facing babies should have straps at or below shoulder height. Specifically, make sure your straps aren't twisted and that you never soak them to clean them.
Attaching To The Car
My car seat manual states that, when installed, the car seat should have no more than one inch of wiggle room in any direction. One way to ensure this is to put your weight onto the seat or base, then tighten your fastening straps. If your car has the LATCH system, you can choose to use it or the built-in seatbelt. If you use the seatbelt, make sure the locking mechanism is activated. To do that, pull your belt all the way out until you hear a click, and when it retracts you should hear a ratcheting sound. That will make sure the seatbelt holds firm upon impact.
Another detail to check - can your car seat touch the front seat? Some rear-facing car seats cannot touch the back of the front seat, while others can. This might determine if the car seat is a good fit for your vehicle.
Once your car seat is properly assembled and installed, you're ready to strap your baby in for the ride! Make sure your baby's straps pass the pinch test. After making sure there's no slack in the straps (give them a little tug), pinch the fabric on your child's shoulder. There should be no extra fabric. The chest clip should be level with the child's armpits or nipples. Too low, and it could cause internal organ damage in the instance of an impact. And of course, always use every buckle and clip every time!
Did I miss anything? Let me know on Twitter @pi3sugarpi3.