Master Your Car Seat for Child Safety

Proper Use of the Harness Keeps Baby Snug and Safe

Baby Safety Month is the perfect time to help you understand how to correctly use the straps in car seats, known as harnesses. Every child, every car seat and every vehicle is different, so understanding the right way to secure the seat and the harness will maximize protection in case of a crash.

Registering and Installing Your Car Seat

For all car seats, read the manufacturer’s instructions, and register it in case of a recall. If you’re given a used car seat:

  • Do not use if it was involved in a crash (ask the previous owner)
  • Ensure the seat has not expired (date will be on the car seat)
  • Check for recalls (all the info you need will be on a label)
  • Contact the manufacturer if you need instructions

Next, get guidance from your vehicle owner’s manual on correct installation. Some car seats are not allowed in certain seating positions, and some vehicle seats are not approved for LATCH attachment systems. Furthermore, seat belts lock and secure car seats in different ways. Car seats should be used rear-facing (when baby faces the back of the vehicle) until your child reaches the highest height or weight allowed by the manufacturer. It is recommended that children ride rear-facing at least until 2 years of age.

Positioning the Harness

Now focus on adjusting the harness correctly. Harnesses are routed differently through a car seat for rear-facing and forward-facing use.

For rear-facing use, harness straps should be routed through the car seat at a slot height that is at or below your child’s shoulders. Once the child transitions to a forward-facing car seat, then harnesses should be at or above the child’s shoulders. This is how car seats protect children against crash forces. In addition, make sure you use the correct “belt path” for the seat belt or LATCH system, and for forward-facing installation, use a top tether strap.

To help ensure the harness can be secured correctly, make sure baby is not wearing any bulky clothing and that blankets are not under the harness straps. Baby’s bottom should be back against the seat and the head positioned upright to support breathing. Many car seats now come with inserts to support correct positioning. Only inserts approved by the manufacturer should be used with your particular car seat. Do not put decorative accessories on the straps, or toys in the car seat.

How the Car Seat and Harness Protect Your Baby in a Crash

The harness, properly positioned, keeps your baby in the car seat rather than being ejected from the vehicle. The harness should be snug so you can’t pinch any slack. The chest clip, or retainer clip, should be properly secured together and positioned at armpit height. Too often these clips are incorrectly positioned over an infant’s stomach. During a crash, the harness helps spread out forces over the harder parts of the body – hips and chest – rather than the stomach and neck. The shell of the car seat moves with the child and absorbs the crash forces, reducing the risk of injury.

Unsure if You’re Doing it Right? Help is Available

Nationally certified child passenger safety technicians (CPSTs) can help ensure your child is correctly secured in his or her car seat and in your vehicle. Often, appointments with CPSTs are free, and parents are encouraged to schedule well in advance of baby’s arrival. CPSTs can also provide safety tips for everyone riding in your vehicle.

One last, important note – car seats are for transportation. Once you arrive at your destination, children should be removed from the car seat – even if it means waking them up.

Image from the National Child Passenger Safety Certification Training Program.

Amy Artuso is a Senior Program Manager for Occupant Protection, National Safety Council.