Catherine Hiles
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Baby Safety Month: How to Properly Install a Car Seat

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Your child’s car seat is one of the most important purchases you will make as a parent. Once you’ve chosen the right one for your vehicle and your child, the next step is to install it early enough before your baby is born so that you are familiar with how it works.

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Car seat installation instructions can differ depending on the type of seat you buy, but these general guidelines should help get you started. For more specific instructions, refer to your child’s car seat manual.

Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only. For more information on child car seat installation, see the American Academy of Pediatrics’ guide or locate a Child Passenger Safety Technician in your area.

Rear-facing car seats

At a minimum, your child should ride in a rear-facing car seat until they reach 2 years of age. But ideally, you’ll keep them rear-facing until they reach the seat’s rear-facing height and weight limits, as this is the safest position for a child to ride in a vehicle.

Before you begin installation, review the instruction manuals for the car seat and for your vehicle to familiarize yourself with the process. Once you understand all the parts in play, follow these steps to install the seat.

Installation using a seat belt

  1. Take the base of the car seat and place it in the back seat of your car, facing the rear. Thread the seatbelt through the rear-facing belt path.
  2. Buckle and lock the seat belt.
  3. Push down on the car seat base and tighten the seat belt if necessary. When properly installed, the base shouldn’t be able to move more than an inch in any direction.
  4. Check to see if your car seat base is installed at the correct recline angle. Babies should sit semi-reclined, but this changes as they grow older, so keep in mind that you may need to readjust the seat base in the coming months.
  5. Once you’re sure the base is completely secure and installed correctly, attach the infant carrier to the base (if using an infant carrier; convertible seats don’t have a detachable infant carrier).

Installation using LATCH

  1. With the convertible car seat or infant seat base on the rear seat, facing the back of the car, locate your vehicle’s lower anchors and the car seat’s connecting straps and hooks. (Lower anchors are located in the space where the upper and lower cushions of the rear car seat meet.)
  2. Clip the car seat’s hooks to the lower anchors, making sure the connecting straps are not twisted.
  3. Tighten the connecting straps until the car seat is secure. It shouldn’t move more than 1 inch in any direction.
  4. As above, check the car seat’s recline angle and adjust if necessary.
  5. If using an infant seat, practice putting the carrier onto the base and locking it in place, and then taking it off, to make sure you understand how it works.

Forward-Facing Car Seats

child in front-facing car seat secured in the rear middle seat
Photo: Dan Harrelson via CC

Once your child reaches the age of 2, you can choose to turn the car seat around so it’s facing the front (though it’s safest to keep your child rear-facing until they reach the weight and height limits for your seat). If you purchased a convertible car seat for your baby, you can keep the same seat and just reinstall it facing forward.

Before installing, make sure that the shoulder straps are positioned at or above your child’s shoulders and move them if you need to. Also adjust the seat angle if moving a convertible seat from rear to forward facing. And, as with rear-facing seat installation, read the seat manual and your car owner’s manual to familiarize yourself with the process before beginning.

Installation using a seat belt and tether

  1. First, place the child’s car seat onto the rear car seat facing toward the front of the car.
  2. Thread the seat belt through the car seat’s forward-facing path and buckle it, then tighten.
  3. Push down on the car seat and continue tightening the seat belt until the car seat moves no more than 1 inch from side to side.
  4. Locate the connecting strap and hook for use with your vehicle’s tether, and then locate the tether in your car. The location of the tether hook varies depending on the type, make, and age of your car, so check your owner’s manual to find out where it is.
  5. Hook the connecting strap onto the vehicle’s tether and tighten.

Installation using LATCH

  1. Check your car seat’s manual to see the weight limitations for using lower anchors in forward-facing mode before installing this way. If your child is above the weight limit, you’ll need to use the seat belt method instead.
  2. Thread the lower anchor connecting strap through the forward-facing path on the seat and clip the hooks to the car’s anchors.
  3. Attach the top tether connecting strap and hook to the car’s tether hook and tighten.
  4. Tighten the lower anchor strap until the seat is secure and moves no more than 1 inch in any direction.

Final checks

Once the seat is installed, sit your child in the seat and strap them in using the 5-point harness so you can tighten it and make sure it’s flat and free from folds or twists. When it’s tight enough you won’t be able to pinch any webbing between your fingers. Align the chest clip with your child’s armpits. As your child grows, make sure you adjust the straps accordingly.

Booster seats

Booster seats (either high-back or backless) are designed to keep older children safe until they are big enough to use the vehicle’s seatbelt by itself. The booster seat raises the child’s height in the seat so that the seat belt sits in the correct place across their lap and chest. If a child is placed in the car without a booster seat before they are big enough, their chances of injury are higher. The American Academy of Pediatrics says that any child less than 4 feet 9 inches tall should use a booster, and all children under the age of 13 should ride in the back seat.

  1. Check to see if your booster seat has lower anchors to secure it to the car seat. If it doesn’t, it’ll just rest on the seat and the child will be secure once the seat belt is buckled.
  2. Have your child sit in the seat and thread the seat belt through the guided paths, buckling it so that the lap belt sits snugly on your child’s upper thighs and the shoulder belt crosses the middle of your child’s chest and shoulder.

The most important take-away is to thoroughly read your car seat’s manual as well as your vehicle’s manual. All car seats are made slightly differently, even though they all do the same job. It’s imperative that you correctly install your car seat before allowing your child to ride in the car. A properly-installed car seat could be the difference between life and death for your child in case of a collision.

If you’re not confident that your child’s car seat is installed properly, look for a Child Passenger Safety Technician in your area to help.