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Making Sense of Car Seat Safety

Parents go out of their way to choose the right car seat for their baby. They spend significant time and money to protect their most precious cargo. Yet the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that, according to a multi-year study, misuse occurred in 79.5 percent of the child safety seats inspected.

The study suggests that many parents unwittingly put their children at risk by failing to use the safety restraints properly. The most common mistakes found were loose harness straps and safety belt attachments. Unfortunately, the NHTSA also calls these misuses “critical” because of the potential for injury.

So how do you make sense of keeping your newborn safe?

First, make sure you are using the correct seat – in the correct position — for your baby’s age and weight. Most infant seats can be used in the rear-facing position for children under one year of age who have not yet reached 20 pounds.

Infant-only seats are designed for younger, smaller babies, so they are a good choice for your newborn. They offer a good fit and are conveniently small and portable. Infant seats should always be used in the back seat, as should all child safety restraints, and only in the rear-facing position.

If you prefer a seat that will accommodate your baby as she grows, a convertible car seat is another option. Convertible seats are larger and heavier, so they can accommodate your baby for a longer period of time. They are used in the rear-facing position for children under one year of age and for children over one year who do not yet weight 20 pounds. When baby turns one and exceeds 20 pounds, you can turn the seat forward-facing. Most convertible seats accommodate children up to 40 pounds.

Whichever seat you choose, it is absolutely essential you know how to use it. Make sure to read the manufacturer’s instructions, as well as your vehicle owner’s manual. To be effective, your child’s seat must be buckled into the seat correctly, and the seat must be correctly buckled into your car.

Harness straps seem to be an area of particular difficulty for parents. For your baby’s safety, the harness must be in the correct slot position and fitted snugly to your baby’s chest. The straps should be in the slots at or below your baby’s shoulders for most infant seats and at or above baby’s shoulders for more convertible seats. The harness clip that holds the straps together should be at about armpit level, and the straps should not be twisted. You should always check the owner’s manual to confirm appropriate placement.

Safety belt use is a common problem, as well. Be sure the seat belt follows the correct path for the position of the seat and recline the seat at about a 45-degree angle, if possible. A rolled towel under the base helps secure the seat into position. Tighten the seat belt, as needed, to ensure the restraint is secured to your vehicle. If your automobile has a LATCH system, use it according to the specifications of your baby’s seat and those of the vehicle owner’s manual.

Other important seat considerations include seat age and condition. If your seat wasn’t purchased new, check the label. Don’t use a seat that is more than five years old or does not come with the manufacturer’s instructions. Make sure you have all the parts and know whether it has been in an accident. If so, be safe not sorry – don’t take the chance.

Finally, if you are unsure about your safety seat sense – or even if you are, visit a safety seat technician to have your seat checked. Your baby’s life may depend on it. To find a technician near you, go online to www.seatcheck.org or call 1-866-SEATCHECK.

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