Properly buckling kids into car seats can be tricky, yet it's a vital safety measure all parents should master in the event of a crash.
Michelle Pratt, a mom of two and a nationally certified car seat safety technician, said her mission is to keep children safe by training parents in the complicated process of installation, harnessing and more.
"When I was leaving the hospital, I was certain that someone would show me how to buckle in my little 7-pound baby and that did not happen," said Pratt, who shares advice with her 26,800 Instagram followers on @safeintheseat.
"The reality is that of the 200 families that I've met with, 100% of them have had some type of misuse," she added.
Placing a child in a car seat correctly can help decrease the risk of death or serious injury by more than 70%, according to nonprofit child safety organization Safe Kids Worldwide and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Installing the car seat properly is as equally important as safely strapping a child in, Lorrie Walker, a technical adviser at Safe Kids told "GMA" in 2019.
"Every car seat on the market is safe to use. It all meets the general safety requirements. But if you buy it and you don't know how to use it, that's not going to save your child's life in a crash."
Here are safety tips according to Pratt, the AAP and Safe Kids.
While buckling your child into their car seat, test that the harness is snug enough where you cannot pinch any slack between your fingers and the harness straps over your child's shoulders.
The harness chest clip should be placed at the center of the chest and even with your child's armpits.
Where and how to install a car seat into your car
A car seat should always be installed in the back seat. Pratt said the middle seat is considered the safest position because it's farthest from any point of impact.
Pratt said car seat manuals are fully detailed with information on how to install your car seat. They can be difficult to understand, though.
To use LATCH, the AAP advises fastening the lower anchor connectors to lower anchors located in between where the back seat cushions meet. LATCH stands for Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children and can be used in addition to or in place of a vehicle’s seat belts. According to the Insurance Institute, LATCH was required in vehicles and on child car seats starting in 2002.
All lower anchors are rated for a maximum weight of 65 pounds, or the total weight of the car seat and child.
As always, check the car seat manufacturer's recommendations or car seat label for the maximum weight a child can be to use lower anchors.
Following your car seat's instructions, pull LATCH strap tightly, applying a significant amount of weight into the seat. The same should be done if using a seat belt.
If you install the car seat using the vehicle's seat belt, make sure the seat belt locks to keep a tight fit. Check your vehicle owner's manual and car seat instructions to ensure you are using the seat belt correctly.
When asking for professional help with installation, Pratt said be aware that not all firefighters and police officers are qualified.
Ask each facility if they have Child Passenger Safety Technicians (CPST) who are certified by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to properly install a car seat. Certified technicians can sometimes be found at fire stations, hospitals, police stations or community events in your area.
On their website, Safe Kids Worldwide offers an ultimate car seat safety guide complete with car seat buying tips, safe installation tips and more. All the information is based on your child's age and weight.
In what position?
In 2018, the AAP issued new car seat safety guidelines encouraging parents to keep their children's car seats in the rear-facing position until they have reached the manufacturer's height or weight limits in order to protect their developing heads, necks and spines in the event of a crash. Previous guidance for rear-facing car seats was age 2.
When a child has outgrown the rear-facing weight or height limit for their car seat, the child should then use a forward-facing seat with a harness for as long as possible, up to the highest weight or height allowed by the car seat manufacturer.
Car seat manufacturers now produce seats that allow children to remain rear-facing until they weigh 40 pounds or more, so now most children can remain rear-facing past their second birthday.
When a child's whose weight or height is greater than the forward-facing limit for their car seat, parents should use a belt-positioning booster seat until the vehicle seat belt fits properly, "typically when they have reached 4 feet 9 inches in height and are 8 through 12 years of age," according to the AAP.
Never let your baby sleep in the car seat unsupervised, or for long periods of time outside your vehicle
According to the AAP's safe sleep recommendations, parents should not use a car seat as an alternative to a crib or bassinet.
After reaching a destination, children who are still sleeping should be removed from the car seat and placed in a crib or bassinet.
Follow car seat manufacturer's guidelines, and make sure the device is installed at a 45-degree angle in the vehicle.
These tips are crucial for preventing positional asphyxiation in car seats -- or accidental suffocation.
Steer clear of car seat accessories
Pratt said to say no to anything that doesn’t come with your car seat.
"Not only do you not need it, but it could jeopardize the safety of your child," the expert writes on Instagram. "Neck or head inserts like these are so so dangerous. They could easily slip behind your little one’s head and cause their airway to be compromised."
Should your child wear a jacket in the seat?
Pratt said you'll want only a thin layer between your child's body and the harness/seatbelt.
Bulky coasts give a false sense of tightness and if there's a crash, a child's body will move where it's unsafe.
A tight harness close to the body is the best way to restrict movement and prevent injury or worse, Pratt wrote on Instagram
Pratt also recommends safe product options for keeping warm in a car or booster seat on her Instagram page.
Know that car seats do expire
Car seats can expire if safety standards change or there's new technology advances.
Time, as well as sun exposure to plastic can also cause wear and tear. And as the AAP notes, you should not use a car seat unless you know its history.
"Do not use a car seat that has been in a crash, has been recalled, is too old (check the expiration date or use 6 years from date of manufacture if there is no expiration date), has any cracks in its frame or is missing parts," the AAP states on its website.
You can find out if your car seat has been recalled by calling the manufacturer or the NHTSA vehicle safety hotline at 888-327-4236 or by going to the NHTSA website at www.safercar.gov.