It’s like a litmus test to see if you’ll be a good parent: the installation of the car seat.
It’s OK to be confused by the process, said Candice Guis, marketing and safety training coordinator for the Safety Council of Palm Beach County — many parents are. In fact, about 75 percent of children in car seats are not properly restrained, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.
That’s why the Safety Council, Palm Beach County Fire Rescue and many other organizations throughout Palm Beach County offer car seat installation experts to help parents make sure they get it right.
Palm Beach County Fire Rescue Capt. Bob Smallacombe said when installing a car seat, remember four things: selection, direction, location and installation:
Selection: Find the right car seat for your child’s age and weight, and your vehicle.
Guis said that all car seats meet the same safety standards — the difference comes in the “bells and whistles” between a car seat you might find at Walmart and one you can buy for $500.
When it comes to those bells and whistles, Smallacombe said to avoid buying items like pillows and pads that didn’t come with the seat.
“In a crash, that stuff all compresses and leaves slack on the harness straps,” Smallacombe said. “If it came with the seat, it was tested.”
Be sure to check a car seat’s expiration date, as well. Smallacombe noted that some new moms will register for car seats for several stages, without checking the shelf life of those seats.
All car seats must pass a battery of tests, so which one is the right one?
“The seat that fits your child that you’re gonna use correctly every time is the best seat for your child,” Smallacombe said.
Direction:Does your child need a rear-facing car seat yet?
This is a hot issue for parents: When is the right time to change your child from a rear-facing seat to forward-facing?
Guis said children under 2 years old need to be in rear-facing car seats, and it’s better to keep them rear-facing for longer.
“It’s about protecting the head, neck and spinal cord of that child,” she said.
Smallacombe agreed: “Which heals quicker, a leg injury or a head and neck injury?” he said.
The recommendation used to be to turn children around when they were 1 year old or 20 pounds, Smallacombe said. But in 2011, the American Academy of Pediatrics updated its recommendation to 2 years old, or until the child is the maximum height and weight for their seat.
Location:Is the car seat in the right position in the car, according to your owner’s manual?
What makes car seat installation such a stressful process for some?
“I think more than anything it is a fear (for parents) that they are not capable of doing it,” Guis said.
So is the middle best? Or one of the sides?
That, Smallacombe said, depends on your car. Check your owner’s manual to find the best location in your car for a car seat.
Guis said that although the middle statistically is the safest — it’s less likely to get hit by a car from the sides, she said — some cars aren’t built for that positioning. They may have a hump between the back seats, or a fold-down armrest.
The comfort of the driver also must be taken into account: Sure, you might be able to fit your child’s seat in the middle of the back seat, but does that leave enough room up front?
Installation: Is the seat secure, and can you move it no more than an inch in any direction?
Almost all vehicles manufactured in the U.S. since September 2002 are required to have latches and tether points to make it easier and safer to install a car seat. Again, your owner’s manual will be your best friend as you look for where the latches in your car are located.
The seat should sit at a 45-degree angle for babies, something many car seats take into account with an adjustable foot.
Smallacombe said that when putting your child in the seat, there are two things to look for when securing the harness:
• Is the harness tight enough? You can check this by making sure that you can just fit two fingers between the harness straps and your child’s body, Smallacombe said. He also suggested doing a pinch test: If you can pinch together material on the straps, they’re too loose.
• Is the harness retainer clip at armpit level? Smallacombe said this helps distribute the force of any impact away from soft tissue.
That’s a lot of information; it’s OK to ask questions.
Palm Beach County Fire Rescue offers car seat safety checks and installation help. Make an appointment online at www.pbcfr.org, or call 561-616-7033.
The Safety Council has car seats available for purchase for $35. Installation help is free, but you do need to make an appointment with Guis by calling 561-845-8233.
“It’s important to remember, it’s OK to ask questions,” she said. “I’ll talk to a new mom all day, if I can help her.”