Car seat safety guidelines: What parents should know about installation, buckling up and more

Here's the 101 on keeping your precious cargo safe.

January 16, 2019, 3:36 PM

On Monday, police in Mankato, Minnesota, responded to a report of a 2-year-old who was found in the middle of the road and still strapped to a car seat. The child, who was uninjured, was properly fastened to the car seat, but the car seat was not properly installed inside the vehicle, the city said.

Placing a child in a car seat correctly can help decrease the risk of death or serious injury by more than 70 percent, according to nonprofit child safety organization Safe Kids Worldwide and the American Academy of Pediatrics. But installing the car seat properly is is equally important as safely strapping a child in, according to Lorrie Walker, a technical adviser at Safe Kids.

"It's the whole package," Walker told "Good Morning America." "It's just as important to have the car seat installed correctly in the car as it is to have your child placed and harnessed into the car seat correctly. They work together."

Here are the car seat checkup tips to ensure your child is properly protected, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

Ensure your child's car seat is facing the right direction

In 2018, the AAP issued new car seat safety guidelines encouraging parents to keep their children's car seats in the rear-facing position until they have reached the manufacturer's height or weight limits in order to protect their developing heads, necks and spines in the event of a crash. Previous guidance for rear-facing car seats was age 2.

When a child has outgrown the rear-facing weight or height limit for their car seat, the child should then use a forward-facing seat with a harness for as long as possible, up to the highest weight or height allowed by the car seat manufacturer.

In this undated stock photo, a mom buckles her infant son safely into a rear facing car seat as they get ready to drive somewhere in their vehicle.
STOCK PHOTO/Getty Images

Dr. Benjamin Hoffman, lead author of the AAP policy statement and chair of the AAP council on injury, violence and poison prevention, said that car seat manufacturers now produce seats that allow children to remain rear-facing until they weigh 40 pounds or more, "which means most children can remain rear-facing past their second birthday."

When a child's whose weight or height is greater than the forward-facing limit for their car seat, parents should use a belt-positioning booster seat until the vehicle seat belt fits properly, "typically when they have reached 4 feet 9 inches in height and are 8 through 12 years of age," according to the AAP.

Children should remain in rear seats until the age of 13, the AAP added.

Use LATCH or a seat belt to secure a car seat inside a vehicle

LATCH (lower anchors and tethers for children) is an attachment system that can be used instead of the seat belt to install a car seat. LATCH can be found in nearly all car seats and passenger vehicles made on or after Sept. 1, 2002.

Parents may use LATCH or a seat belt, but Walker said to choose "one or the other" and remember to take your time.

We know that over 95 percent of families leaving hospitals with newborns also make serious mistakes. This is not the family’s fault, as I said, car seats are hard.

"They're both equally safe, but sometimes you find when you do the installation [one over the other] has a tighter, better fit," she added. "That's the one to go with if it works for your car, car seat and child."

Properly installing the seat

The reality is, and Hoffman agrees, installing a car seat isn't the easiest task.

"We know that over three-quarters of car safety seats are installed with critical errors that may impact the way the car seat works and lead to increased risk of injury for children," Hoffamn told "GMA" today. "We know that over 95 percent of families leaving hospitals with newborns also make serious mistakes. This is not the family’s fault, as I said, car seats are hard."

To use LATCH, the AAP advises fastening the lower anchor connectors to lower anchors located in between where the back seat cushions meet. All lower anchors are rated for a maximum weight of 65 pounds, or the total weight of the car seat and child. As always, check the car seat manufacturer's recommendations or car seat label for the maximum weight a child can be to use lower anchors.

Following your car seat's instructions, pull LATCH strap tightly, applying a significant amount of weight into the seat. The same should be done if using a seat belt.

This image displays a rendering for a car seat installation using LATCH (lower anchors and tethers for children), which is an attachment system that can be used instead of the seat belt to install a car seat into a vehicle.
American Academy of Pediatrics

The top tether from the car seat improves safety provided by the seat, the AAP says. Use the tether for all forward-facing seats and check your vehicle owner's manual for the location of tether anchors.

Always follow both the car seat and vehicle manufacturer instructions, including weight limits, for lower anchors and tethers. Weight limits are different for different car seats and different vehicles.

After the car seat is installed, it should not move more than an inch side to side, or front to back. If the car seat shifts, it's not tight enough.

"We want the car to do most of the work in terms of absorbing all of the force in a crash," Hoffman said. "A loose car safety seat will transfer more of that energy to the child, and the risk for injury will go up."

We want the car to do most of the work in terms of absorbing all of the force in a crash.

"Each seat in each vehicle are a little different, and there are tricks that can be learned to achieve a tight installation regardless," Hoffman added. "One check that I will often use is to put my knees on the seat and press it into the cushion as I’m tightening either the vehicle seat belt or the lower anchors."

In this undated stock photo, a mother puts her baby in a rear facing car set.
STOCK PHOTO/Getty Images

If you install the car seat using the vehicle's seat belt, make sure the seat belt locks to keep a tight fit. Check your vehicle owner's manual and car seat instructions to ensure you are using the seat belt correctly.

On their website, Safe Kids Worldwide offers an ultimate car seat safety guide complete with car seat buying tips, safe installation tips and more. All the information is based on your child's age and weight.

Strapping in your precious cargo

While buckling your child into their car seat, test that the harness is snug enough where you cannot pinch any slack between your fingers and the harness straps over your child's shoulders.

The harness chest clip should be placed at the center of the chest and even with your child's armpits.

The fire station myth

Walker said many parents may have heard the rumor that every fire station knows how to properly install a car seat into a vehicle, but that's not always the case.

Walker said it's important to ask each facility if they have Child Passenger Safety Technicians (CPST) who are certified by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to properly install a car seat. Certified technicians can sometimes be found at fire stations, hospitals, GM dealers, police stations or Safe Kids events, according to Walker.

PHOTO: A woman buckles a child into a car safety seat.
STOCK PHOTO/Getty Images

Know your car seat's history

Both Walker and the AAP say not to use a car seat if you don't know its history.

Walker said that when a car seat has been involved in any sort of crash or collision, it needs to be replaced to ensure it'll meet all safety standards.

Do not use a car seat that has been in a crash.

"Do not use a car seat that has been in a crash, has been recalled, is too old (check the expiration date or use 6 years from date of manufacture if there is no expiration date), has any cracks in its frame or is missing parts," the AAP states on its website.

You can find out if your car seat has been recalled by calling the manufacturer or the NHTSA vehicle safety hotline at 888-327-4236 or by going to the NHTSA website at

Read more about the AAP's car safety guidelines for children here.

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