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Installing a Car Seat

You might think that anyone who can read an instruction manual and follow directions could install a car seat. In reality, though, it's not so easy. And according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, as many as 85 percent of all car seats are improperly installed.

In the following, we outline the most important factors to pay attention to and suggest where to turn for more help if you're confused. (Illustrations courtesy of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.)

For a visual demonstration of common mistakes, correct car seat use, and a typical safety inspection, watch our videos on infant car seats, convertible car seats, and child booster seats.

Placement and orientation of the car seat

The safest placement for a car seat is in the center of the rear seat, or of the center seat in a van or station wagon. Never install a rear-facing car seat in a front seat equipped with a passenger-side air bag. Keep your baby in a rear-facing car seat until he reaches 12 months and 20 lbs. at a minimum — but the longer you can keep him in a rear-facing position, the safer he'll be. (Read our article to find out more about why and when to have your child face forward.) If your baby's head flops forward, you can make the seat more level and comfortable by wedging a folded towel, blanket, or other firm support under the front of it.

Once your baby is at least a year old and has outgrown his rear-facing car seat, he can ride facing forward. The middle of the back seat is still the safest place for him to sit.

Booster seats — used for children weighing 40 to 80 pounds (about ages 4 to 8) — are intended for use with a shoulder belt, ideally in the back seat.

Steps for installing your seat successfully

• Read your car seat and vehicle manuals to make sure you understand the mechanics of installing the seat. If the information isn't clear, call the automaker, the safety-seat manufacturer, or both. Or take a 30-minute workshop to make sure you get it right (see "Getting more help," below).

• Use the new tether system if possible. All child safety seats and vehicles manufactured on or after September 1, 2002, must be compatible with the LATCH system, which stands for Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children (some cars manufactured between 1999 and 2002 also have the system). The LATCH system is designed to make installation of a car seat easier and safer by attaching it directly to anchors permanently attached to the vehicle instead of using the seat belt to secure it. Although only front-facing infant and toddler car seats manufactured on or after 2002 are required to have both the upper and lower attachments, all child safety seats with a five-point safety harness (including rear-facing infant car seats) are required to have the lower anchors. If you own a vehicle that doesn't have the anchoring system, consider having your car retrofitted (check with your local auto dealership for information on cost and feasibility). If your car is LATCH compatible, but your safety seat isn't, you can buy a conversion kit.

• If you're installing a forward-facing seat, make sure it's flat against the seat's bottom and back. Use your hands to push down as hard as you can on the car seat — or better yet, place your knee on the car seat and push down with all your weight to squash the air out of the cushion underneath it.

• Make sure the car's seat belt is threaded through the correct slots, and pull the belt as tight as possible so there's no slack. Once you've buckled the belt, give it a yank to make sure it's locked.

• If your car is a pre-1996 model, chances are the lap-and-shoulder belts don't lock in place unless the car comes to a sudden stop. (To test them, see if you can move the car seat more than an inch to either side or toward the front of the car when the belts are buckled tightly.) If the seat moves, you'll need to secure it with a locking clip, a small metal device that looks like an oversize paperclip. The locking clip fits around the seat belt (about a half-inch above the buckle) to hold the belt firmly in place. If your car seat didn't come with a locking clip or you've misplaced it, contact the manufacturer to order a replacement or purchase one at a children's supply store.

• Check to make sure the seat is secure and resists side-to-side motion. If you can still tip the car seat forward or sideways more than an inch or so, unbuckle it and try again until you get a tight fit.

Using the installed car seat

• Be sure you know how the buckle system works. You can tighten and loosen the straps around your baby with the harness adjustment lever.

• Adjust the harnesses to make them snug. If there's a plastic harness clip, keep it at armpit level to hold shoulder straps in place.

• Don't allow the straps to get twisted — they should lie flat.

• After you buckle your child in, tug the straps to make sure they're locked.

• Place rolled-up cloth diapers, blankets, or towels around newborns to keep them snug in the car seat. You can also purchase head, neck, and body supports to secure your baby.

• If your infant's head flops forward, make the seat more level by wedging a folded towel or other firm support under the front of it.

Getting more help

Because so many parents have trouble getting their car seats installed properly, manufacturers and child safety experts recommend that new parents sign up for a car seat installation workshop. Such classes usually take about a half-hour — possibly the smartest half-hour you'll ever spend. Where to find one?

• The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Web site lists child safety seat inspection stations by zip code so you can find help near you.

If you're looking for help online, see:
• The NHTSA Web site's useful section called Are You Using It Right?

• The American Academy of Pediatrics' handy one-minute car seat checkup and shopping guide.

• SafetyBeltSafe U.S.A.'s Web site is a rich resource of technical details about car seats, what you need to modify a car seat for your car, how to install it properly, and so on.

Finally, in some communities you can get help with car seat installation from your local police station.

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