A kid in a red car seat

3 years ago, when our first daughter was born, I’d installed a car seat in our car, doing my best, looking at the instruction manual, but counting on the fact that the hospital where my wife was delivering offered free car seat installation checks before you left the hospital.

So, when the expert technician explained that, among other things, I should not use both the latch installation method and the seat belt installation method at the same time, I was grateful for the information, slightly embarrassed, and not all that surprised I’d done some things wrong.

Last week, a little over 3 years later, our second daughter was born. This time, I thought, I was a seasoned pro. I’d moved Kid #1’s car seats around in multiple vehicles, read the manual, read up on the safest place to put the car seat in the car (the middle, I’d read), and I’d had years of experience. So, when we got to the hospital I brought Kid #2’s car seat instruction manual in, read through it, and while my wife and new daughter were sleeping I went down to install a second car seat in our car. Then I scheduled an appointment to have an expert technician check it out because 1) it was super easy – we were already at the hospital, these appointments were on site and free, 2) this was our kids’ safety we were talking about.

But I was feeling damn confident when the installer met me at our room. As she followed me down to our car I imagined her commenting what a damn fine job I’d done, and how many people confidently install car seats incorrectly but I certainly wasn’t one of those people.

When we got there and she checked the two seats, and then told me the following:

  • Anchor installations should not be used in the middle seat. Since we’d read the middle was the safest place for a car seat and figured anchors were more foolproof than belt installation, Kid #1’s car seat was installed with the anchor/latch method in the middle seat. Turns out most cars don’t have anchors for the middle seat, so you end up (unknowingly in my case) attaching the car seat to the right passenger’s seat’s left anchor and the left passenger’s seat’s right anchor. My belief that the middle seat was safest had caused an improper installation. As the technician said, the safest installation of a car seat is a proper installation.
  • Anchor installation should not be used after the combined weight of the car seat and the child exceeds 65 pounds. We were damn close if not over this already with Kid #1 and Car Seat #1, so I shouldn’t have been using anchors at this point anyway.
  • Proving how strong you are by ratcheting down latch systems or belt installations so tight the car seat base can’t move at all is bad. Installing the base for our infant seat, I’d figured the tighter the better and cranked that sucker down while kneeling on it. Nope, said the tech – doing this 1) put unnecessary stress on the plastic base and 2) pulled the back part of the base so far down into the seat it prevented me from being able to properly level the base.
  • When installing 2 car seats next to each other, you must ensure there’s adequate room for both seats. We figured our older child was less protected based on seat design and should remain in the middle and our newborn should go behind the driver. But, when the tech had me put the infant seat into its base the two car seats hit each other. I pushed the infant seat down and heard the click you’re supposed to hear, but when the tech and I checked it we saw the seat had only clicked into the base on one side – being butted against the other car seat prevented the natural, easy connection of seat to base.

Well, shit. So much for my hero-car-seat-installer-dad status. Once again I left the appointment feeling a mix of gratitude and embarrassment, but this time there was genuine surprise – I thought for sure I’d gotten it right. There’s an obvious lesson here I’d urge everyone to take to heart: car seats are complex systems. Accidents are rare but there is no excuse for not doing everything you can to prepare in case the worst happens. And that everything includes getting your seat installation checked by a pro. Studies by the NHTSA have suggested that upwards of 50% of all car seats may be installed incorrectly. Please make damn sure yours isn’t one of them – schedule a check at the hospital when your baby is born, call your local fire department, or call a nearby hospital for a list of local resources.