Using the Car Seat Harness Correctly
Learning to use the Car Seat Harness correctly is important as various incorrect usage are four of the most common car seat mistakes parents make.
After selecting the right car seat for your child’s car seat stage (selection) and installing it (direction, location and installation) — and preferably having that installation checked by a certified Child Passenger safety Technician, there is harnessing.
From birth to booster you are likely using a 5-point harness car seat. This means the car seat harness system contacts your child in five points: both shoulders, the hips and the crotch. These are the strongest points of the body. A 5-point harness spreads the crash force evenly over the child.
First thing first, which way is your child facing?
If your child is in a rear-facing car seat, the harness strap should be at or below your child’s shoulders. If your child is in a forward-facing car seat, the harness strap should be at or above your child’s shoulders.
Make sure the harness straps are both going through the car seat — shell and cover — at the same level and neither strap has any twists in it.
Once your child is in the car seat.
Pull the harness straps over your child and buckle the harness and close the chest clip.
Pull the harness straps to a snug tightness. This means if you try to pinch the harness horizontally you cannot pinch the material together. This is the “pinch test.”
Move the chest clip to armpit level.
That seems simple enough, right?
Except that as mentioned, harnessing mistakes account for four out of ten of our most common car seat mistakes.
Those mistakes include:
1. Not having the harness straps snug enough.
A large number of parents still leave the harness too loose. At checkups we often hear them say something like, “it seems too tight and uncomfortable.”
A snug harness as: “A snug strap should not allow any slack. It lies in a relatively straight line without sagging. It does not press on the child’s flesh or push the child’s body into an unnatural position.” You want the straps to be “as snug as a hug.”
Why is this so important? During a crash the harness straps are holding the child in the car seat. If those straps are too loose, the child will not be properly secured and could even come out of the straps becoming an unrestrained child.
2. The chest clip is not at armpit level.
In many car seats the chest clip is meant to break during a crash, so how can the position be so important? Well, too low and the harness straps may not be positioned correctly on your child’s shoulders, especially if the straps are also too loose. In this case, the clip prevents the straps from separating, ensuring your child is not ejected during a violent crash. Too high and prior to breaking, it could compress on your child’s throat.
3. Harness straps are not properly positioned for the child.
For rear-facing child safety seats, if you are looking at the child sitting in the seat the straps should be going through the safety seat at the slot at or below the child’s shoulder. In other words, you should not be able to see the strap coming out of the seat above the shoulder, it should be hidden beneath the child’s shoulders.
Download our report: Common Car Seat Mistakes and How to Fix Them
In a forward crash — the most common type of crash — the first motion is going to be the top of the child seat rotating down toward vehicle’s floor. If there is enough crash energy, the child’s body is going to try to slide toward the top of the child safety seat. You want the harness straps to be cradling, or at least very close to the child’s shoulder, so that they do not slide “up” into and stop suddenly or even go through the neck opening when they finally hit the misplaced straps.
For forward-facing car seats, the harness straps should go through the safety seat at or above the child’s shoulder. Think about how our seat belt is positioned on us. It anchors above our shoulder so that we lean into it in a forward impact.
4. Harness straps are not routed correctly through the car seat.
Why is this so important? The car seat manufacturer crash tested your car seat and meant for the straps to be used in a certain configuration. If you routed the straps incorrectly, it could interfere with the performance of the car seat during a crash. If the car seat harness straps are twisted, they may not distribute the weight correctly and cause injury.
Also remember, to not have anything thicker than sweatshirt material between your child and the car seat harness straps. This includes thick winter coats, blankets and those nice fuzzy, plush car seat covers that have a back section between the baby and car seat.
Get a visual of car seat safety rules.
We want to know, were you nervous to “over tighten” the car seat harness straps when you first started putting your child in a car seat? Share your comments below.
By Amie Durocher, Creative Director at Safe Ride 4 Kids and certified CPS Tech since 2004
Copyright 2019 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.