‘Tis the season for dealing with winter coats and car seats for our young ones.
It’s getting cold! And it will officially be winter in a matter of days. (Really, the time is a flyin’.) Parents who live in colder climates question what they should do with winter coats and car seats with young children.
As parents we want to keep our children warm. The walk to the car is cold. The car itself is cold. And you never know when you’ll have to shovel out your truck! (see picture)
But bulky winter coats and car seats are a dangerous combination. We want to avoid having a lot of bulky clothing inside the harnessing system in the child restraint. Because in a crash all the bulk will squish down and the harness straps will be loose. Car seat technicians say to put nothing thicker than a sweatshirt on your child under the harness straps of a car seat.
Unfortunately, even though car seat experts and media have shared this a lot over the years, a 2019 study by Volvo showed 65% of parents still do not remove the child’s coat before putting them in a car seat.
Every year parents make the argument that it is below freezing much of the winter where they live and if they crash the child could die of cold. I can understand that argument in those climates especially if they drive on remote roads where help can be some distance away. However, as Amber Rollins of Kids and Cars says, “there shouldn’t be any exception because it’s just not safe. First you have to survive the accident. If you don’t survive the accident, then this is not an issue.”
How to check the winter coat in the car seat
Here is a simple way to check if your child’s coat is too big to wear under their harness:
- Put the coat on your child, sit them in the child seat and fasten the harness. Tighten the harness until you can no longer pinch any of the harness webbing with your thumb and forefinger
- Without loosening the harness, remove your child from the child seat,
- Take the coat off and put your child back in the car seat and buckle the harness straps, which are still adjusted as they were when he was wearing the coat.
- If you can now pinch the webbing between your thumb and forefinger then the coat is too bulky to be worn under the harness.
Here’s great video showing the winter coat fit test described above.
Why can’t I use a winter coat in a car seat?
During a crash all the material of a bulky winter coat or those comfy thick sleeping bag like aftermarket products or other bundling products will compress making the harness straps too loose on the child. When the harness straps are not snug on the child’s body, they don’t do their job of helping the child come to a gentle stop during a crash.
Many puffy coats and snowsuits can leave 4 inches of slack in the straps. Four inches of slack significantly increases the risk of injury, says Miriam Manary of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. The risk of head injury is particularly high, she added, as the child could move so far forward the child could hit the back of the front seat at a low enough point where the seat may not be padded.
It’s possible the straps could even be so loose the child slip through the straps and come out of the child restraint. Definitely not a good situation.
Want to see this in action? Watch this crash test video of a child (dummy) in a car seat with a winter coat. Granted the harness straps are too loose to start with, in addition to having on a bulky coat. We do wish they had done a better job on the video. However, in reality many parents already have the straps too loose on their child so this video may be more realistic for those instances.
Also as the car warms up the kids can start to overheat if they have all these warm materials between them and the harness straps, which they can’t remove. Remember just because you aren’t feeling too hot doesn’t mean they aren’t.
Download our report: Common Car Seat Mistakes and How to Fix Them
So what should parents do as they are running out the door on those cold winter mornings?
- Dress the infant as if they were going to be indoors.
- Put them in their infant carrier.
- Secure on the harness straps nice and snug (remember if you can pinch the material together between your thumb and finger it’s too loose, as seen in the picture).
- Top them of with a hat and some blankets over the top of the harness straps and carry baby out to the car.
- As the car warms up you can remove blankets and replace them over baby when you arrive at your destination to get out of the car. This also helps ensure baby doesn’t get overheated during the car ride.
For toddlers and preschoolers:
- Dress the child comfortably and put on their coat and hat for their walk out to the car.
- Take off the coat and buckle the child snugly in the harness straps.
- Put the coat on over the child. They can put their arms in the sleeves backwards. Or use blankets.
- The child can remove the layer(s) as the car warms up.
Car seat friendly coats and infant covers are now available (you can see some in our Car Seat Gift Guide).
Two things to note
- Most car seat manufacturers will void their warranty if you use aftermarket products with their child restraints.
- The RideSafer has been crash tested with the bulkiest winter coat the manufacturer could find and still performs very well. Just remember there is still potential for the child to overheat when the car warms up. For short trips or if you keep the car cool, children using the RideSafer can do so with their winter coat on.
Prior to this post, had you heard about winter coats and car seats? Share your comments below.
By Amie Durocher, Creative Director at Safe Ride 4 Kids and certified CPS Tech since 2004
Copyright 2021 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 November 2013. We updated the article for accuracy and comprehensiveness.
Is there statistical data that supports this? I see this everywhere, but nobody can provide real proof, or crash test results. The one crash test video I saw was so rigged, I literally laughed at it. If my child is properly tightened in the car seat, is this really an issue? It almost seems like it is a made up issue based on a possible scenario somebody thought up, not facts and data.
Hi Jason, We think we can guess the video, if it was recent. We wish they had also tested it with the harness straps properly tightened over the winter coat. There are definitely cases where the child is ejected from the car seat while wearing a winter coat. However, it is hard to tell after the fact how tight the harness straps were prior to the crash. And the coat will compress significantly with the crash force. And the fact remains many parents don’t tighten the harness straps as much as recommended.
If you watch the video linked to in this blog post you will see a demonstration of how loose the straps are when the harness straps were properly tightened over the coat, the coat is taken off and the child put back in the car seat.
Stay tuned to our blog via our newsletter or Facebook, we’ll be posting videos about crash dynamics that will help address this question as well.
How did the rest of us survive? My kids always had snowsuits on. I was from a generation where we wandered around the car, car seats weren’t really even a thing.
Jason is correct the Rossen Report crash test video dummy is not restrained properly. Their intent is good in spreading the word but the improper harnessing, I think, makes it hard for parents to understand the true risks in a crash.
In the winter, puffy coats are the biggest contributor to loose harness straps, one of the more common car seat mistakes. The convenience is just not worth the risk.
There are a lot of great alternatives to dangerous puffy winter coats for parents:
Take the coat off and warm the car first
Use fleece or a blanket
Use a car seat safety coat like the Buckle Me Baby Coat
Love parents who spread the word to keep kiddos safer!
I want to know if this is just advise or if it’s is a law to wear no coats in car seats?
Hi Lolly, While it is “advice”, I’d say it’s stronger than advice. It’s recommended by every car seat safety expert I’ve talked to, trained under, read articles from. Many would probably describe it more as an “unwritten law”. So no you would not get a traffic ticket if your toddler wears a coat under the harness straps of a car seat. But if a parent makes that choice and is in a crash which has a negative outcome because the harness straps that seemed tight over the coat were really not tight enough on the child, how will that parent feel? If it is you deciding or you looking for information to offer other parents, watch/share this video: http://www.today.com/video/car-seat-alert-a-winter-coat-could-endanger-your-child-585502787887 While the harness straps should have been tighter in the video, in reality, they are probably as tight as many parents have them on their child. Be safe out there. :-)
If the straps are adjustable with the center pull strap between the legs of the child it can be tightened more after the child is put in the vehicle with a coat on. Unless it’s like a really bulky coat for minus – degree weather.. a parka so to speak I don’t see how it can affect that much. I think it’s lazy parents that just don’t want to hassle with loosening and tightening the straps to get them in and out they likely left their childs straps extra loose so they don’t struggle with it or if the child can’t do it themselves. I’m not buying it.. my babies will have a coat on.
Did you watch the video? It shows even when the harness strap seems tight over the coat, if you take the coat off, the straps are not tight to the child. The straps need to be tight on the child as the bulk of the coat will compress during a crash. That is why we, and all other car seat experts, recommend taking the coat off prior to harnessing.
Obviously the straps will be loose without the coat on are you totally thick,
Yes. That is what we are saying. The straps need to be tight to the child. If you are adjusting the car seat harness straps to the winter coat, they will likely not be tight enough to the child. You can test how tight the harness straps are to the child by leaving the straps at the same tightness you adjusted it to with the coat on then removing the coat and seeing how tight the straps are to the child without the coat.
In a crash every millimeter counts. Even if the probability of being thrown from the car is not high think of how small the area is between your child and the seat in front of them when they are forward facing. Facts are facts. The bulk of a coat compresses during a crash creating too much space for the harness to work properly.
There are a lot of great alternatives:
Parents can take the coat off
Parents can use fleece or a blanket
Parents can use car seat safe coats like the Buckle Me Baby Coat
The convenience of keeping traditional puffy coats on are just not worth the risk.
u learn something new every day.i was upset to think my grandson could not wear a coat in this freezeing weather now i understand.ur never to old to learn.but it is a problem how to keep a small child warm.in a car.could do with desiening a cover that would atache with velcrow to the seat.sorry spelling bad.
Hi Nikki, We’re so glad our post helped you have a better understanding. There are some coats now that are specially designed to be used in car seats, you can see an example in our Car Seat Gift Guide post. Also blankets work great with the added bonus that the child can remove it as the car warms up to prevent overheating.
Question. I keep seeing posts like this about coats but I can’t find any information about the sleeping bags that strap into the car seat and get zipped up after you buckle baby up. Chico makes one that’s universal but it seems like this would be a really good option instead of bulky coats because it’s also zipped up around the baby which seems like even if the straps were loose (heaven forbid) it may help baby not get ejected from the seat. Do you know anything about those? I’ve seen them all over Europe.
It applies for anything that goes between the child and the harness system. There are some coats that are specifically designed to be used in a car seat. You can use a cover/bag if you are able to remove the back, so it just goes over the top of the child and harness straps. I share a couple choices in my car seat gift guide. If the harness straps were loose on the child and the child were to be ejected from them, a zipped-up sleeping bag would not keep the child contained during a crash.
I too would like to see actual statistics. It seems people make all the rules for one or two incidences. What about all the years kids have worn their coats in their carseats? Also what about adults? I always wear my coat with my seatbelt on. And I am closest to the heat. If i’m not over heating the child should not be. You can’t warm up your car every single time prior to putting kids in. I am not going to put them in freezing carseats and make them freeze waiting for car to warm up. You arent going to take a blanket in grocery shopping with you. So you get out to the cold car, they can’t wear coats, the blanket is as cold as their seats. What I see a lot now is parents just taking kids and infants in and out without coats now. Friends of mine just throw one of those car seat covers over baby and take them in and out. I’m sorry, but that is not enough. They respond well she/he can’t wear a coat. My neighbors kids are going out to the car in the morning with no coats and car had not been warmed up. All these kids running around now without coats on could also be very dangerous. Until or unless it becomes a law, my grandkids will wear their coats.
While I understand your concern, we agree with Amber Rollins, director of Kids and Cars where she tells the Washington Post, “There shouldn’t be any exception because it’s just not safe.” The most important thing is to keep your child alive. There is less chance of that happening if the buckles are too loose because the child is wearing a coat and the child does not remain in the car seat during a crash. I’ve never found statistics on how often it happens, though I have read multiple news stories of children who were thought to be properly buckled being thrown from the car. It’s the results from crash tests that makes car seat experts recommend not wearing a coat. Parents are not likely to allow their children to freeze. If you have the child wear the coat to the car, take it off, buckle in the child and put the coat back on, the coat will still be warm. Children can wear thin coats and there are now coats specifically designed to be used within the harness of a car seat which have been crash tested.
I don’t understand the people willing to take the risk of a child becoming seriously injured or dying so that they aren’t a little cold for a minute or two… it’s just not worth it. There are lots of ways to keep them warm without risking their safety in the event of a crash. Be smart, people! Think about how you would feel if the worst happened!
BS! Kids need to wear coats! They are at risk for temperature change! I have never heard anything so stupid as taking your child out without a coat! 25 degrees last night and my grandchildren had no coats on! Negligence it is! Whoever thinks they shouldn’t wear a coat should not have kids!
Yes, we agree children should wear coats while they are out and about in the cold to and from a car. We do recommend NOT wearing a coat in the car seat harness straps. Test after test and real-world crash results show this just isn’t safe. The straps do not work as intended with a lot of bulk between them and the child.
What about Booster seats for kids who have outgrown “car seats”? Does the same rule apply?
Ideally, yes. Although, because of the seat belt retractor, it is a little different in booster seats or seat belts. It’s still better to not have a coat — some experts recommend adults to not wear a coat in the seat belt either.
Hi Amie! Thank you for this reply, it’s hard to fine any information regarding booster seats and winter coats. Do you happen to know if they’ve done tests with this scenario? We’re switching my 5 year old to a high back booster seat and I wanted to make sure she would be safe in a coat but couldn’t find much about it. Just wondering at what age we need to keep her in a sweatshirt while in the car. Thank you!
Hi Chelsea, I’ve never seen crash tests testing boosters and seat belts with children wearing winter coats. But most safety experts recommend no one wearing winter coats in car seats or seat belts because you want the seat belt in close contact with the body just like you do a 5-point harness.
How stupid. Show us data that kids actually do get injured because of wearing winter coats in their car seats and I’ll start paying attention to the crap thats spewed all over the internet. Have fun taking care of your sick kids. Mine will be nice and warm on his ride to school. Until data is shown, this is nothing more than complete and irresponsible ignorance that you’re trying to drill into young parents heads.
Statistics aren’t available for this particular hazard as far as I’ve been able to find. Many puffy coats and snowsuits can leave 4 inches of slack in the straps. Miriam Manary of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute says 4 inches of slack significantly increases the risk of injury. The risk of head injury is particularly high as the child could come so far forward as to hit the back of the front seat at a low enough point where the seat may not be padded. Car seat manufacturers do warn parents to not put children in bulky garments in the harness straps. Here’s an example from Graco’s Extend2Fit car seat manual directing parents to not use bulky snowsuits or garments in the car seat. Many states require you use the car seat per manufacturer’s instructions.
When can a child wear a coat in the car?
Hi Dorothy, Many people allow it when the child is using a booster seat and the seat belt. However, it’s actually still recommended to take the coat off. Really it’s recommended that adults take their coat off while in the seat belt too. It’s best to have the straps/seat belt as close to body as possible. The RideSafer has been crash tested using a bulky coat, though for comfort and fit, we still recommend taking the thick winter coat off.
I just found out that my husband leaves my two-year-old’s coat on unless on the highway. I was furious. How do I show him that even driving 45-50 mph is still dangerous with a loose harness? Any help would be appreciated.
Hi Julie, First of all, remember a lightweight coat is OK. We’re concerned with the puffy winter coats.
Second of all, most car crashes happen within 5 miles from your home at low speeds, 30 mph or less. Doesn’t sound like it would be too harmful? A quick Google search shows, NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) says “Most fatal crashes happen within 25 miles from home and at speeds of less than 40 mph.”
It may help to show him the video linked to above. I wish I knew of a better one that didn’t have such loose harness straps to begin with but this is the only video I’ve found that demonstrates it visually. Maybe do the winter coat fit test to see how loose the straps actually are on your child once you remove the coat.
Jason, I’ve looked tirelessly for these “definite cases” of children being ejected from their car seats solely due to a regular winter jacket and I’ve never been able to find evident of any. Aside from the video you’ve mentioned, all I’ve found are countless articles advising us to remove and why they feel we should.
I have, however, found many articles of children dying of hypothermia before first responders reach them. I think this was originally meant for the newer style puffy coats and was shared over and over again after the video was released. The down filled coats that became popular over these last few years. I will continue to properly install my car seats and safely buckle my children with their winter coats on.. It’s cold here.
This is old and the article about this crash in Maine doesn’t specify the baby coming out of the car seat specifically because of a coat. Even at this date investigators may not know to look into that. But in the lengthy description it does say the baby was wearing a snowsuit in the car seat and the harness straps of the car seat were still buckled. Here’s another story from 2015 in Pennsylvania found on KidsandCars.org website. I didn’t find any stories of a child dying from hypothermia from not wearing a coat. I did find an article mentioning the possibility of it and how some older people have died from hypothermia after a crash in the winter. I also did find an article about a 14-month-old girl who survived hanging above a frigid river for 14 hours, no mention of what she was wearing just that she was properly buckled in her car seat. I think Amber Rollins of Kids and Cars said it pretty clearly when she told the Washington Post, “There shouldn’t be any exception because it’s just not safe. First you have to survive the accident. If you don’t survive the accident, then this [hypothermia] is not an issue.” Put on the hat and mittens. And maybe a Buckle Me Coat designed for use in car seats as it has a thin back and allows the harness straps to be directly on the child not over the poof.
I definitely take my kids coats off while they’re in the car seat. What I want to know is when I don’t have to anymore? My daughter is 5 and in a high backed Booster seat using the regular seat belt, do I still take her coat off? I want her to be safe, but I feel bad for her when we get to school and she has to put her coat back on before heading inside. Or when I pick her up and she has to take off the coat before hopping in her seat and buckling up before I can even move from the spot.
Ideally, you’ll always take the winter coat off. This applies to children in boosters as well as adults. It is best if the harness straps or seat belt is as close to the body as possible. One trick for those that live in really cold places where the car takes really long to warm up is to:
Put on the coat unzipped.
Get into the booster or vehicle seat and buckle the seat belt.
Zip the coat up over the seat belt.
This way the seat belt is directly contacting the body at the most important points while keeping the child warm. Here’s a picture borrowed from Car Seats for the Littles so you can see what it looks like.
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Can a toddler still eat the winter coat in the car seat if it is unzipped and the harness is against their body?
In most general brands of bulky winter coats the back side is puffy and would add still add padding. The coats designed for use in car seats like the Buckle Me Coat have a thinner back that is acceptable for use in a car seat.
What about rear facing car seats? If the straps are tight, I see no reason a winter jacket can be worn.
The no bulky winter coats in car seats applies to rear facing seats as well.