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Properly Installing Your Car Seat

one inch pull test

Car Seats Series #4 : Installation

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

You’re done selecting the right car seat for you, now it’s time for installing your car seat. You’ve heard that 59 to 96% of parents get it wrong (depending on the study quoted and age of child) and you want to do it properly so your child is as safe as possible.

This is the confusing part as different car seats have various restrictions and recommendations to install that particular car seat. Plus the car typically has a couple of methods available for installing your car seat. No matter what method you use or recommendations you follow, it all starts with where.

one inch pull test

Location, location, location

We have a longer article about where to put the car seat so this is just the basics.

First choice, front seat or back seat? Obviously, car seats should be installed in the back seat. It’s the safer place in the car for all children up to 13 years old. Car seats should never be placed in the front seat with an airbag as the airbag can cause additional injury to a child during a crash. Plus the back seat puts the child further away from the most common type of crash — frontal.

Next, which seating position in the back seat? The center seating position is the safest place in the vehicle so that is the best location for installing your car seat. However this only works if you have only one child. Once you have a second child you need to make more decisions — for this read our more in depth article.

Do your homework

There are two must-reads when installing your car seat. First, read your vehicle owner’s manual and second, read your car seat manual. These will give you specifics for your particular car and seat situation. For instance, you’ve already chosen the center back seat for the safest place to put the car seat, the manuals will tell you:

most common car seat mistakes
  1. If there is LATCH in that position,
  2. If there’s not LATCH in that position can you use one lower anchor from each side position or do you need to use the seat belt to install the seat,
  3. A few vehicles don’t even allow a center position install.
  4. Your car seat manual will tell you if you can use both LATCH and the seat belt to install the seat (MOST do NOT allow this).

Choose direction and proper belt path

Based on the seat selection process you already went through, you know which direction you are installing your car seat; rear facing or forward facing. Put the seat in the vehicle facing the correct direction for your child’s car seat stage.

If you have a convertible or a 3-in-1 seat, which can go either rear or forward facing, it will have two different belt paths; one for forward facing installs (typically runs behind the child’s back) and one for rear facing installs (typically runs under the child’s legs). Find the correct belt path for the direction you have chosen for the seat. The paths are marked on the seat and described in the car seat manual.

Car Seat Installation 101

1. Angle

Like have two different belt paths, car seats have different angles they must be installed at depending on if the seat is rear or forward facing. Some seats have adjustable recline positions. All seats will have some sort of angle indicator like a sticker with a line or a bubble with a specific range. Some seats have different levels to choose from depending on the age of the child.

Be sure to have your car parked on a level surface so you can tell if the level indicator is accurate.

If it is a challenge to get the correct angle with just the adjustability of the seat, some seats allow for use of a pool noodle or rolled towel at the bight of the vehicle seat to adjust the angle of the car seat.

Download our report: Common Car Seat Mistakes and How to Fix Them

2. Securing the seat

There are three methods to secure a car seat:

  • LATCH which is lower anchor and tether for children or,
  • seat belt or,
  • very rarely, LATCH and seat belt — there are currently only a couple of car seats available that allow this type of installation, make sure it says it’s an approved method in the car seat’s manual

Because every car seat and vehicle is different, it’s important to follow all instructions from the aforementioned manuals carefully.

3a. Seat belt installation

Prior to installing your car seat using a seat belt, you need to know how to lock the seat belt. The vehicle manual will have instructions. The most common way is to gently pull the seat belt all the way out. When you let it go back in, you’ll likely hear a ratcheting sound and you won’t be able to pull it back out (until it goes all the way in and unlocks).

And you also want to check the car seat manual. Some car seats have “lock offs” that “lock” the seat belt. Usually if you use the car seat’s lock off, you do not also have to lock the seat belt. Sometimes using both will make the car seat tilt.

  1. Route the seat belt through the correct belt path for the direction your seat is facing, making sure there are no twists, and buckle it.
  2. Check the angle indicator.
  3. Lock the seat belt either by locking the seat belt mechanism or the lock off on the car seat. Some people tighten the belt then lock, it depends on the type of lock you have and if the seat doesn’t loosen while locking if you tighten first. (In recent years, it has become rare that you would need to use a locking clip to install a car seat correctly.)
  4. Tighten the seat belt by removing excess webbing while applying pressure to the car seat until the seat moves less than one inch when pulling with your non-dominant hand at the belt path. (It is normal for the car seat to have more movement at the front edge of the seat and the top.) We say non-dominant hand because you don’t want to do the one-inch test with all your might.

Manufacturers Alliance Child Passenger Safety reminds us over-tightening (like so tight you move the whole car when testing the seat) can cause damage. Installing “too tight” can damage the seat structurally at the belt path or harm the lock-off. (MACPS CEU 2022)

3b. Or LATCH installation

Starting in 2003 cars were required to have two sets of LATCH in the vehicle. Most manufacturers put them in the two outside seating positions and do not allow you to use one anchor from each side to install a car seat using LATCH in the center. Some car manufacturers put more than two LATCH positions in the car. (Be sure to read that vehicle manual to find the positions and if you can “borrow” for a center seat install. If it doesn’t say, don’t do it.)

Prior to using LATCH to install your car seat, find the lower anchors in the seating position you want to use. There is usually a button or label on the seat to indicate the anchor is near.

  1. LATCH hookDetermine which direction the LATCH clip needs to attached.
  2. Make sure the LATCH strap is routed through the correct belt path for the direction your seat is facing. Make sure there are no twists.
  3. Connect the LATCH clips to the anchor points
  4. Check the angle indicator.
  5. Tighten the LATCH strap by removing excess webbing while applying pressure to the car seat until the seat moves less than one inch when pulling with your non-dominant hand at the belt path. (It is normal for the car seat to have more movement at the side closer to the front seat and the top.)

Note: The intention of the LATCH system was to make installing your car seat easier. We could debate about whether it did or if it just added another element of confusion and a chance for errors. Both LATCH and seat belt installations are equally safe up to the LATCH weight limit.

In 2004 NHTSA required some changes to LATCH weight limits and labeling. The gist of it is that most car seats have a combined weight limit of 65 lbs (weight of the car seat + weight of the child). They must be labeled when you can no longer install it with LATCH at which time you must use the seat belt. You can get more detailed information about the 2014 LATCH changes here.

4. Tethering

tether strap head excursion

Car seat experts recommend using the tether strap for forward facing installations. The tether strap reduces forward head movement (“excursion”) in a crash. Get the idea of this in the University of Michigan image to the right.

Find the tether anchor points for your car in the manual or marked in the car. Make sure it’s not a cargo hook or other type of accessory anchor. Bring the tether strap from the car seat over the top of the vehicle seat. Clip the strap to the car’s tether anchor point.

Extra peace of mind

No matter what you read, sometimes it’s best to have hands on instruction. Or test your install by having it checked by a certified Child Passenger Safety Technician. Find a local technician visit Safe Kids listing. We do not recommend taking your car seat to a doctor or fire station without checking first that they have a trained and certified technician on duty.

Next up: Car Seats Series #5: Harnessing

We want to know, did you do everything right? Share your comments below.

By Amie Durocher, Creative Director at Safe Ride 4 Kids and certified CPS Tech since 2004

Copyright 2022 Safe Ride 4 Kids. All rights reserved. You may not publish, broadcast, rewrite or redistribute this material without permission. You are welcome to link to Safe Ride 4 Kids or share on social media.

We originally published this post in January 2017. We updated the article for accuracy and comprehensiveness.

© amie durocher
© amie durocher

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