Car Seat Tips for New Parents

A list of things to think about as you prepare to add a new little person to your family.

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Infant or convertible seat?

One of the first things you need to decide when buying a seat for a newborn is whether to buy a rear-facing only infant seat, or a larger convertible seat. There is no right or wrong choice here, so long as the seat fits your child and your vehicle appropriately. Used seats come with their own set of challenges; read more about those here.

If you are expecting multiples or a small baby, it is very important to look for a seat that starts at 4 lbs and also has low harness slots. There’s even one that allows use at 3 lbs! A baby’s small torso needs to be taller than the lowest harness slot to fit properly in most cases. Take your tape measure to the store and check out the differences between models. Newborns come in different sizes and shapes of course, but a seat that is highly adjustable is more likely to fit well from birth. Many seats will come with required or optional padding or low birth weight inserts to improve the fit, so check that any floor model you’re looking at has all of the parts present.

If you prefer to use a convertible from birth you still need to consider actual fit – not just the stated minimums on the seat. Many convertibles fit an average-sized newborn from birth and also come with required or optional padding to improve fit. Some now start at 4 lbs, but most at 5 lbs. The lowest harness position is still important, so don’t be shy with the tape measure. To make things more confusing (sorry), some convertibles are available with additional newborn-specific padding or fit rules for wee ones. Please ask us if this is the route you want to take so we can give you the most current information possible.

Vehicle shopping

If your current set of wheels isn’t ideal for transporting kids you may find yourself in the market for a new vehicle. This isn’t as straightforward as you might hope, unfortunately. Read more here about what features are important to consider once you have kids on board.

Recline and breathing

One of the biggest challenges encountered by new parents is properly reclining the car seat. Some car seats naturally position a child more upright than others; some babies are floppier than others. If your child’s head tilts forward then something needs to change immediately, as this is very dangerous for young babies. If they are positioned chin-to-chest the airway can close. Babies don’t have the physical ability to lift or reposition their head, and their brain hasn’t yet developed the reflex to alert them to breathe. Chin-to-chest can result in positional asphyxiation and can be silent and fast.

Regardless of whether you choose a rear-facing only seat or a convertible seat, it is absolutely critical to make sure that car seat is reclined as much as possible within any allowable range provided by the seat. Some seats have a weight-based recline range, some are more flexible, and others just state a single line for all ages. Read more about recline angles and how to use them here.

Avoid unregulated products

Walk on by that wall of cute baby stuff  that claims to be “made for use in the car seat.” Car seat manufacturers rigorously design, engineer, and test their products to work as intended, meaning to keep your little bundle safe in a crash. If you deviate from the instructions you increase the chances of the car seat not doing its job. Are you eying up a fuzzy set of harness pads to be comfy at the neck? Some car seats come with those. Some manufacturers make them available for purchase for specific seats. Don’t buy ones that aren’t made specifically for your seat.

Avoid adding head positioners to car seats. They tend to attach to the harness, and go behind the head. This can change how the harness works or fits your child, and putting something behind the head can push baby’s head forward and is the opposite of what you’re trying to achieve. See above for chin-to-chest dangers. 

If your car seat came with a head positioner, head pad, body pad or insert, then read your manual carefully to see if there are any requirements for use or removal. 

Bunting bags or sleeping bag inserts also fall into the unregulated category. They tend to add bulk, interfere with how the harness works or fits, may interfere with how the handle moves, or how the carrier snaps onto the base. Shower cap-style covers may be an option, but avoid use in the car so baby doesn’t overheat. Often a blanket draped over the seat is all that is needed to keep the wind out for quick in and out trips between car and house.

Other unregulated products include mats, mirrors, toys that attach to the handle of the seat, aftermarket covers or sew-your-own covers, and anything that didn’t come with the car seat or was not made by the manufacturer of the car seat. Many brands have options in these categories because parents want them, so look there first if you’re feeling a need for these items. And if you received these items as gift or bought them and can’t return them? They may be appropriate for use in the stroller instead.

Hot cars

Every year we hear of tragic hot car deaths and possibly think to ourselves we would never do that, we love our kids too much. If this is you – stop. Stop right now. That thinking is dangerous.

Of course you love your kids. So did the parents who made the horrifying mistake of forgetting their kids in a hot car. We all get distracted. We all go on auto-pilot. And it’s not that those parents forgot about their kids for 8 hours, it’s that their brain told them their kids were safely at daycare or with grandma or wherever they usually go. If you have ever driven a familiar route and then realized you didn’t really remember the last few kilometres of travel then you, like every other tired, distractable human, are at risk of making a tragic mistake. And this risk intensifies when we are tired. Hands up if you are a new parent (or hey, any parent) who isn’t often tired. No? Okay then, read on.

How to minimize the risk? Thankfully there are some simple, low cost things you can do to reduce the risk to your family.

  • Use any systems in place with daycare or school to have them contact you or a series of people if the child doesn’t show up as expected. This might be called a safe arrival program.
  • Make a habit of always opening the rear door after you exit the driver’s seat. Even better, keep something back there that you need such as a phone, wallet, or purse.
  • Communicate with other caregivers when exiting the vehicle and get in the habit of doing a head count once inside.
  • Take advantage of any technological backups provided by your car seat or car, for example:
    • Some Evenflo seats come with SensorSafe, which includes an app connected to the chest clip of your child’s seat together with the ODB port in your vehicle. The app, when set up, will contact a cascading series of people if the system determines that the car was parked but the chest clip is still buckled.
    • GM has a chime reminder if it determines that the rear door was opened within a certain time the car was driven. We expect to see more and more advances in this area of injury prevention as manufacturers get more creative to prevent the rising number of hot car deaths in North America.

For more information on this topic you can read here.  Kids and Cars is the primary source of information on this topic.

 

 

Winter wear

Newborns who travel in rear-facing only seats are quite easy to keep warm. Typically the car seat starts out warm because it’s been in the house. Dress baby in thin, warm, well-fitting layers, such as a sleeper layered with a slim-fitting fleece sleeper over top. Add a hat, and then buckle. Tuck a blanket around baby over top of the harness but avoid any fluff near the face. Quick in-and-outs between store and car can be dealt with by draping a blanket over the seat to keep out the wind, but don’t leave it in place for long as it may limit air flow. Avoid using bunting-bag type seat inserts, see above for unregulated products.

Keeping newborns warm and safe in convertibles, as well as a child of any age in a larger seat, requires a bit more planning. Read more here.

Car seats are for cars

Always buckle as if you’re driving. We all know someone (or did it ourselves) who loosened baby’s harness “for comfort” while inside, covered them with a blanket, and then forgot to re-buckle to drive home. Not only does this put them at risk of injury in a crash, but it means baby could slouch and slide down in the seat, changing the position of their head or where the straps are on their body. New parents forget things. They’re tired, distracted, and just trying to function. Avoid this risk by always buckling properly as if for a drive.

Car seats are not safe sleeping spots. Once the car seat comes out of the car, baby should come out of the car seat. You’ll notice that the angle the car seat sits at is different on the floor or stroller compared to when clicked into the base. Please re-read the section above about chin-to-chest and why it’s so dangerous. Consider baby wearing, a stroller with a recline-flat seat or bassinet, or a portable crib for sleeping when not at home. Find more information on safe sleep here.

Click the carrier only onto the base, compatible stroller, or place on a low and flat surface. Rear-facing only car seats aren’t meant to click or dock onto the top of a shopping cart. This could damage the seat’s own locking mechanism, as well as making the whole contraption very top heavy. Avoid the fall hazard and put the carrier down and in the shopping cart if it fits, baby wear, or use a stroller to pull behind you with one hand while you push the cart with the other. Alternately, this may be a good time to take your friends up on offers to help and send them to the store with a list, take advantage of grocery delivery or pre-order and quick pickup options, or something else that suits your life. Further avoid fall risks by not placing the car seat on high or unstable surfaces like a couch or counter.

Stroller compatibility and travel systems

Disclaimer: we do not provide much input on strollers, that’s not our thing. If stroller compatibility is important to you our advice is to consider how you use the stroller separately from what you need and want in a car seat. If you happen to find a travel system that works for you, excellent. Travel systems are car seat-stroller combos that come as a set.

For many people though, what they want in a stroller is different from what comes in a travel system, and they shop for the two separately. Regardless, car seats are not intended to replace a crib for sleep, and chin-to-chest is dangerous. Strollers may not position baby well when they’re little.

Does your lifestyle include any of the following?

  • being car-free
  • taking a lot of public transit
  • walking including to areas with a lot of stairs
  • living in a building that doesn’t have an elevator
  • traveling by plane
  • trail running
  • pushing more than one child (now or in the future)

If yes, then our advice would be to shop for the stroller separately and then look at what car seats are compatible with your stroller of choice. Popular brands make adapter bars for many types of car seats, and often the adapters can be found second hand.

Parents of multiples are advised to consult with other parents of multiples for input on the stroller situation.

Find and read your manuals

Unearth your vehicle manual and flip to the section usually called “child restraints.” Also read your car seat manual cover to cover. Some manuals are organized more clearly than others. Use the customer service options offered by your car seat manufacturer. All are available to provide additional product support; some even go so far as to video chat with you to troubleshoot any questions you may have. These days, virtually all of them are responsive on social media, so pick your preferred communication method and reach out with questions. They want you to use their product safely and properly, so don’t be shy.

Are you dusting off your own seat to use with another child? Reread its manual. It’s amazing the things you forget. Often, a rear-facing only seat has been left set up for the larger, older child who vacated it, so some steps will need to be taken to ensure it’s set up for a wee one. Also double check that all parts are there, there’s no mold or rodent damage from being in storage, and the seat hasn’t expired since you first purchased it. If you’re borrowing from a friend go through this list with them to make sure it’s appropriate to pass along.

Read your car seat manual and your vehicle manual.

Practice with a doll or stuffed animal

This may sound ridiculous but it’s very helpful! Find a baby-sized doll or stuffy – doesn’t need to be perfectly proportioned – and try buckling it up. If you are doing this at the shopping stage some stores may have an appropriately-sized doll to test out, or CPSTs often have one on hand for prenatal education. Get a sense for how the harness adjusts and tightens, how the buckles feel, and where the arms and legs are meant to go. Your baby will be much cuter, but also possibly wiggly and most definitely noisier. Practicing on a doll will up your confidence for when it’s go time.

Poppy, a Build-A-Bear monkey, is a good-sized model to practice on!

Register your seat

Sometimes car seats are recalled and it’s important that the manufacturer knows to reach out to you to inform you of any concerns with their product. If you don’t register your seat they can’t know that you have it!

Registering is easy and can be done online. Your car seat will come with a postcard-type card that contains all of the information needed to register your seat. If you lost it don’t despair; all of the information needed can also be found on your seat. Look for a sticker that indicates date of manufacture and model number. We also recommend taking a picture of this label for easy reference should you ever need the information on it for a warranty question. The registration information should be readily accessible on the manufacturer’s Canadian website.

Registering your seat applies even if you are using it for a second child and forgot to the first time around. It applies if you were given a safe used seat by a trusted friend or family member. Do it now!

Some manufacturers reward owners who register their seat with additional warranty options, so take advantage!

Meet with a CPST for hands-on help

Car seats are life saving devices, and when used properly, are very effective. For some parents, reading the car seat manual and car manual is all that is needed and they feel confident and ready to welcome their newest family member. 

Some parents feel much more prepared if they meet one-on-one with a CPST to learn how to install and use their seat. Rewind a bit – many CPSTs can also help with the choosing of a seat at the buying stage. Do what works for you! Find a CPST near you at https://www.cpsac.org/find-a-tech/.

Thank you to our CPST colleagues from across Canada who provided adorable and educational photos for this article. You know who you are!

An unconventional giveaway...

Congrats to the winner of a pair of custom-made baby slippers. Jen will knit them and mail them to you. They’re handmade, cute, and stay on little feet! 

Comments

  1. Erin says:

    Thank you for highlighting the fact that some convertible car seats are totally appropriate for newborns. Sometimes the convertible just fits the family’s lifestyle and installation needs the best!

  2. Mahdieh Hossini says:

    I didn’t even think of using a convertible seat instead of a bucket. For my first pregnancy I had multiples and it was most convenient to carry them out of the car with buckets. With a baby on the way and two 4 year olds I’ll have to think what type of seat will work out the best.

  3. Lo-Anne says:

    I liked the part about reminding readers that we can all experience auto-pilot moments and that is usually the cause behind forgotten children in the vehicle.

  4. Joy Ayala says:

    I’m always recommending that parents consult with a CPST – they are so helpful and can help figure out some pretty complex scenarios. I have a friend who is a CPST and we’ve talked through some fun scenarios like “I have these 4 seats available, these 3 kids I need to transport, in this vehicle… can we make it work?”

  5. Michelle M says:

    I love the idea of practicing on a bear or stuffed animal. I haven’t seen that before. All in all a very informative article for new parents and a good reminder for all.

  6. Caitlyn Harcus says:

    Love this article. I used a convertible from birth with number one and two, but now with a number 3 on the way and many more activities in our schedule, this is a great article to help me make a decision.

  7. Vanessa olsen says:

    I am a CPsT in Quebec and most of my useful information ready to share is in French. I am definitely going to refer to your website next time I help a parents who only speaks English 🙂

  8. Lynea Nielsen says:

    Registering your seat is a MUST! Many of my friends haven’t done this and a lot of people overlook this step.

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