Car Seats And Coats Don't Get Along

Do you live somewhere cold or rainy? If you’re in Canada, the answer to that is yes, at least for part of the year!  You’ve maybe heard that winter coats and infant bunting bags shouldn’t be worn in car seats — maybe you’ve even read it in your car seat manual (you read your manual right?).  Maybe you wonder how dangerous it really is, and how much of a difference it could possibly make to your child’s safety.  Hopefully this article will explain it – with pictures! – and give you some good ideas for how to keep your kids warm AND safe in the car.

My semi-cooperative children are my models for these pictures. I had to bribe them, but it’s all in the name of education, and they decided afterwards they wanted to play North Pole in their snow suits anyway, so it all worked out.  On Vancouver Island it’s quite mild most of the winter and these winter coats only come out if we’re going up the mountain. The rest of the year they rarely wear more than a fleece or a raincoat.  We have lived elsewhere in Canada where it is quite frosty with a significant wind chill and they wear the same thing there.

The experiment:

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1. Dress kids in regular clothing plus a winter coat (purple – MEC Toaster Parka), and a winter snowsuit (green – MEC Toaster Suit).  Agree that fancy pink mask is a great accessory for such an outfit.

2. Buckle kids in their seats as normal: harness coming from at or above the shoulders for forward-facing kid (in the purple coat, age 5, 43lbs), and at or below the shoulders for rear facing kids (in the green snow suit, age 2.5, 33lbs).  Pull all slack from harness around hips, and tighten so that I could not pinch any excess harness at the collarbone area (the pinch test).

 

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3.  Unbuckle, but don’t loosen harness.  Take snow suit and parka off (but only for a minute because now they want to play North Pole!).  Put fuchsia fleece jackets on instead (MEC Yeti jackets – great weight and fit for in the car seat; Old Navy fleece is also great, as are any others that are warm but thin), which is what they usually wear. Re-buckle, but don’t tighten harness.  See how loose the harness is (green snow suited child on the left; purple parka-ed child on the right):

 

 

 

Maybe that doesn’t look too bad to you – maybe not much looser than normal?  Well it’s loose enough to do this, with little effort:

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In a crash the chest clip will break or slide down, at the same time that the crash forces cause the harness to compress the bulky snow suit much more than you ever could while tightening.  The combination of these two things means that suddenly a large gap exists for the shoulders and arms to come free of the harness…and depending on the crash dynamics very possibly the rest of the body too.  Partial ejection or ejection causes severe injuries and is something we want to avoid at all times.

 

 

So how to keep warm and safe in colder areas?  Don’t wear more than normal clothes plus a thin fleece layer.  Warm up your vehicle if you want to. Have the kids wear the coat to the car, jump in, take it off, buckle up, cover back up with the coat on backwards or on like a blanket. Or just use a blanket. That plus hat and mitts works well, and they can peel off layers as they warm up.  Parents sometimes worry about breaking down or being in a crash and their child suffering hypothermia if they’re not wearing a coat. Definitely have layers with you, just not between the child and the harness.  If your child is wearing a coat and is ejected because of it you have far more things to worry about injury-wise than hypothermia.  Other ideas include making or buying a car seat poncho (I have no affiliation with any of these companies), or there’s a new car seat safe coat called the Cozywoggle that is now available.

There are some thin but warm coats out there that might be okay under the harness. To know for sure do this same pinch test. Buckle up and tighten properly in regular clothes plus a thin fleece. Unbuckle but don’t adjust the harness. Put the test coat on, and if you can re-buckle without loosening then it’s just fine to use.

Booster riders and those in adult seat belts (including you!) can also improve their safety in the car by unzipping a coat to ensure the shoulder belt makes contact with the chest, and pulling a coat up off the lap to make sure the lap belt is sitting snugly against the upper thighs.  This simple step which takes only a few seconds means less slack in the belt during a crash, and therefore fewer injuries.

 

What about infants and bunting bags? I don’t have an infant and couldn’t borrow one today, so I used my teaching doll instead. Her name is Clementine. She’s squishier than a real baby so I can never do a proper ‘pinch test’ on her, so I’ve shown this using finger widths instead.  Also in your car seat manual (if you didn’t read it before, how about now?) it will also say no aftermarket products. A bunting bag like these did not come with your car seat, so it’s aftermarket. Aftermarket products are unregulated, and are not crash tested with your seat, so using them means your child is the crash test dummy.

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I tried two different bunting bags for this part of the experiment. Both are commercially available but shall remain nameless.  The cream/brown one is a ‘lite’ version and is quite thin, not much more than a t-shirt layer and a wind-proof layer.  I wasn’t expecting bulk issues or compression issues with it (surprise!).  I was expecting – and got – harness placement problems.  Because bunting bags aren’t made to specifically fit a certain seat the holes or slots may or may not line up properly.  This one did cause the harness to roll on itself at the shoulder.

 

 

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The crotch buckle slot REALLY didn’t line up – it was about 2″ too far forward, so to fit the crotch buckle through I had to bunch up some of the fabric.

 

 

 

 

Next I put the elastic stay-in-place loop around the back. It pulled the head area so far forward I could fit my hand down the back in between the head and the back of the car seat. That could cause air way issues in a young baby if it forced the chin to the chest.  So I undid the loop, leaving nowhere really to put the excess fabric. It’s going to either end up on top of the baby’s head, or bunched up behind the head again possibly causing air way issues.

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I could comfortably fit one finger under the harness with the bunting bag in place (remember she’s a doll so I can’t do a proper pinch test like on a real kid). Then I took the bunting bag out, didn’t adjust the harness at all, and tried again. 2.5 fingers easily fit in the same place. I admit this surprised me because this particular bunting bag is not thick or squishy at all. The amount of slack it caused must be due to the extra bulk bunching up at the crotch, and poorly positioning the harness.

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Next I tried the same thing with the much bulkier, squishier version.  Poor crotch buckle slit placement meant bunching again. On this one the harness slot at the shoulder lined up well and didn’t cause any bunching or folding there.  I tightened so I could comfortably fit one finger under the harness, then took the bunting bag out and tried again – 4 fingers.

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Even a little bit of slack in the harness can be enough for a baby to be partially or fully ejected once that chest clip slides down or breaks in a crash.  Remember the narrow space that baby recently emerged from at birth? Babies are soft and squishy with flexible shoulders and softer bone structure, and can fit through narrow spaces.  A tight harness that is properly positioned is essential for safety in the car.

Wait a second – what about those bunting bags that claim to be crash tested?! There are no crash test standards for aftermarket products. None. Maybe they did crash test their product – but what test dummies did they use? What seats did they use? What were the results? They could have thrown it against the wall and called it crash tested.  Don’t trust that to mean anything.

Babies in infant seats are EASY to keep warm in winter.  Dress them in regular clothing, and buckle them up. If you want a bit of extra warmth try a fleece sleeper maybe one size bigger than they usually wear. Fleece suits are great but usually not until at least 6 months, otherwise they’re too bulky and don’t fit well.  Once the baby is harnessed cover with blankets, use a shower cap style cover like this, or just a blanket over the handle to keep the wind or rain out.  Don’t put anything extra between the baby and the harness.

 

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14 comments to Car Seats And Coats Don’t Get Along

  • I just wish it was that easy!

  • jshapka

    It’s not easy, but it’s doable, and better than an ejected child. I lived in Ottawa before the Island and dealt with cold and snow there with two kids. It’s not fun, but my kids wore the same thing there as here, it just took more time bundling up and getting re-dressed on the other end.

  • Alysha

    Better than burying your own child!

  • I find it not only easy, but necessary. Safety is just not something we should negotiate. As an infant, my daughter was always warm and toasty in her infant seat. I dressed her in regular clothing (like cotton long sleeved onesie and cotton pants/warm socks) and tucked a flannel receiving blanket over her bottom half and under her feet. I also had a shower cap style cover over the seat. We live in Northern BC, it can easily be -40 with windchill here. Now, in her convertible seat, she wears normal clothing and a fleece jacket. She is never cold and most importantly, she is safe.

  • Kate

    Show me proof in an actual crash situation that a child can be ejected. Give me a crash test dummy accident that shows this can happen. Not what could POSSIBLY happen, but that it will happen.

    Do you know what DOES happen when a child is subjected to -40C weather Frostbite can be nearly instant. Oh, throw a blanket on the child. Well what happens when mom and dad are incapacitated. Oh sure, child is nice and safe and secure, but wait… mom and dad make it and the child dies due to exposure.

    Sorry, my kids will wear a winter jacket.

    You want to tell a person about ‘Better than burying your own child’ then don’t tell a person who lives where the windchill can get down to -45 to -60C that they can expect not to bury their child when this happens.

    • jshapka

      Kate – here is a link to a crash last year where a child was ejected, most likely due to the bulky snow suit he was wearing. Thankfully he lived, despite being launched 25′ into a snowbank. http://thestir.cafemom.com/baby/149235/the_important_winter_car_seat

      We can’t ever say definitively what WILL happen in a crash. We can only caution about the risks and encourage proper use and best practice to keep kids as safe as possible in the car. Car crashes are the #1 cause of accidental death of kids in Canada, and up to 70% of those deaths are preventable if the seat is installed and used properly every single time, even in winter.

      The public generally does not have access to the misuse testing that car seat manufacturers perform. However, if you check your manual it will say not to wear bulky clothing. Transport Canada’s testing standards allow for only a certain amount of compressible material behind the child, and adding extra bulk between your child and the harness only increases the risk of injury. If your province requires proper use of your car seat then note you may be at risk of being ticketed for going against manufacturer’s instructions.

      I live where it’s cold – as do many people all over Canada and the US, whose children are warm and safe in car seat appropriate clothing. This is what my kids wear no matter what. Like many things it’s about balancing risks. The risk of massive head and spinal injuries due to partial or complete ejection is very real, even in a relatively minor crash. And they’re instant. Hypothermia inside a vehicle is not instant.

    • Kristel

      Kate, that makes no sense.

      Let’s call problem A an ejected child and problem B what you mentioned. Problem B can’t happen without problem A. So it makes more sense to prepare for A THEN B. because problem A is the most likely and problem B involves a handful of other variables that are even less likely but again, entirely dependent on the child surviving problem A.

      It’s like not getting fire insurance but taking a specific meteor policy on your home.

    • Kathryn

      I’m a health care worker and have been to many collision scenes where a child was ejected from the carseat, (harness still buckled) about 25% of those collisions resulted in the child dying either on scene or shortly after in the hospital. I personally do NOT even allow my older children to wear heavy coats in the vehicle. Our children are ages 15, 14, 13, 13, 10, 5, and 1yr. They each have a warm blanket that they are responsible to bring to and from the van when we go out. and it gets folded and placed in a bench at our door.

  • Live in northern alberta and have putting my children in fleece for winter driving for years. Most of my driving is highway driving. Their warm winter coats are sitting beside them in the car for when they are needed. My neice died in a car crash when she was 10. I will take no chances in my children?s safety in the car. I can not go through a loss like that again

  • Kathy

    Hi there,

    First of all, thanks for this!

    However, I’ve done the same experiment as you 3 times now, with by boys in MEC toaster suits in our Diono carseats. I found that I was able to tighten the straps of our carseats very well and that there was no significant “pinch” when I removed the suits. Maybe it’s because my boys only wear T-shirts under their suits I do feel that the MEC toasters allow you to tighten the straps really well. I did the same experiement with a different suit, and didn’t have the same results as with MEC.

    For longer rides, my boys never wear suits. But I have been keeping their suits on for short rides (10 min) on residential streets (to and from daycare, for example. Any thoughts

    • jshapka

      Hmm, I’m really not sure. In the photos here the girl in green was wearing only a t-shirt under the toaster suit, and the pink fleece went on after. Do you have the large foam comfort pads on the harness How tight are you getting the straps when you tighten You should not be able to pinch ANY slack at the collarbone after removing all slack at the hips. Without seeing it in person it’s hard to tell – much more of a hands on sort of thing! – but I’m really not comfortable with a suit of that bulk on for any ride in the car.

  • Colette

    Are theses suggestions or is this mandatory from the ministry of Transportation I live in Winnipeg, last winter we hit record highs for the coldest itemperature ever recorded (-50 C not including the windchill). You could have left your car running for hours and it just would not warm up at all. This is wishful thinking. You’d be better off investing your time in better driving skills.

    • jshapka

      While the first goal is to avoid getting into a crash at all, the second is surviving the crash. Ejection or partial-ejection from the harness is a very real risk when wearing bulky clothing. The harness does not fit properly against the body. Various manufacturers state that bulky clothing is not to be worn – to my knowledge Manitoba requires ‘proper use’ of a child restraint, meaning following the rules set out by the manufacturer. Not doing so would be using the seat illegally. Would you ever be ticketed for it I have no idea what enforcement is like in that province.