To best protect your child in a crash, car seats must be installed correctly. Did you know that 3 out of 4 car seats are not used correctly? Many factors play into car seat installation – type of car seat, type of vehicle, and method of installation.
Many parents get confused or frustrated when attempting to install a car seat. Don’t worry, that’s normal. But with the right information, car seat installation doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Once you find the proper car seat for your child, based on your child’s size and the right fit for your particular vehicle, you can determine the best way to install the seat.
There are a couple ways to properly install a car seat: the LATCH system or with a seat belt. LATCH stands for Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children. (See more on LATCH below) Before you install your car seat, take some time to read both the car seat instruction manual and your vehicle's owner manual. This is where you'll find helpful information on the availability and location of certain safety equipment. The back seat is always the safest place to install a car seat, and your vehicle's owner manual will give you the information you need to determine which rear seating position is best for proper installation.
For hands-on help, visit a child passenger safety technician or attend a car seat check event. Find local help here.
A car seat can be safely installed using a seat belt. Before you install your car seat using a seat belt, read your car seat instruction manual and your vehicle’s owner manual. Pay close attention to the information on your vehicle’s seat belt system, and how to “lock” the seat belt. Every seat and vehicle is different, which affects the way you’ll install your particular seat.
Most seats come with a base. The base is intended to make it more convenient for you to transport your small baby in and out of your vehicle without having to re-install the car seat every time.
Best practice: When your child outgrows the infant car seat, switch to a convertible, 3-in-1 or All-in-One car seat and use it in the rear-facing position. These seats typically have weight and height limits for the rear-facing position that allow you to keepyour child rear-facing longer. If a baby under 1 year old grows too tall or too heavy for an infant car seat, a car seat with a higher rear-facing size limit is recommended.
Best practice: Read the car seat manual carefully and remember that cildren should ride rear-facing until they reach the top weight or height limit.
Once your child outgrows the rear-facing size limits, it’s time to switch your convertible seat to face forward.
Best practice: Continue to use your car seat in the forward-facing position with a harness and tether for as long as possible. Always read the car seat and vehicle manuals for weight limits. If your child reaches the weight limit for the top tether, but is still within the size limits of the car seat, use the car seat without the top tether.
Combination Car Seat, All-in-One Car Seat, and 3-in-1 Car Seat used as a Booster: Once your child has outgrown the weight and height limitations of your forward-facing car seat with harness, your child may be ready to ride in a booster seat, using your vehicle's lap/shoulder seat belt – never a lap belt only.
Some younger children may outgrow the weight or height limit of the forward-facing car seat with a harness but may not be ready to stay seated properly in a booster seat using the lap and shoulder belt. If this is the case look for a car seat with a higher size limit.
Before you begin, read the instruction manual for your car seat and the portion of your vehicle owner’s manual on child restraint systems. Because every car seat and vehicle is different, it’s important to follow all instructions carefully. If you are converting a 3-in-1, All-in-One, or Combination Car Seat to a Booster, follow the instructions on how to remove the harness.
Best Practice: Continue to use the booster seat until your child is big and mature enough to fit an adult seat belt properly. [Link to beyond booster section.
LATCH stands for Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children. This system is designed to help make proper car seat installation easier. The lower anchors are those small metal bars found in many vehicles' back seats. Adjustable lower straps (sometimes called "LATCH straps") are connected from the car seat to the lower anchors to secure the car seat. All car seats should use the top tether strap in the forward-facing position. Some manufacturers recommend using the top tether strap with a rear-facing seat, as well.
Before you install your car seat using the LATCH system, read your car seat instruction manual and your vehicle’s owner manual carefully. Pay close attention on the location of the lower anchors and top tether anchor and directions on how to use this installation system in your vehicle. Every car seat is different and every vehicle is different, which affects the way you’ll install your particular seat.
Also, keep in mind that your vehicle’s LATCH system may have a weight limit that differs from that of the car seat. If that’s the case, you can first install the seat using the LATCH system, then switch to seat belt installation later.
We know that as a parent or caregiver, you will do everything in your power to protect your children. You'll find here all the information you need to understand and use the LATCH system correctly and help safeguard your child. Always follow the installation instructions provided by your car seat manufacturer and your vehicle owner's manual.
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Infant Car Seat With Base: Most infant car seats come with bases. The base is intended to make it more convenient for you to transport your small baby in and out of your vehicle without having to re-install the car seat every time.
Installation Tips: Infant Car Seat
Best Pratice: When your child outgrows the infant car seat, rear-facing-only car seat you should move to using a convertible, 3-in-1 or All-in-One seat, and use it in the rear-facing position. These seats typically have higher height and weight limits for the rear-facing position, allowing you to keep your child rear-facing longer. If a baby under 1 year old grows too tall or too heavy for an infant car seat, a car seat with a higher rear-facing size limit is recommended.
Installation Tips: Convertible Car Seats, 3-in-1 or All-in-One
Best Practice: Read the manual carefully and remember that children should ride rear-facing until they reach the top height or weight limit you move them to the forward-facing position with a harness.
Installation Tips: Convertible Car Seats, 3-in-1, All-in-One or Combination Car Seat
Best Practice: Don’t rush to move your child to a booster too early. Continue to use your car seat, in the forward-facing position with a harness and tether for as long as possible. Always read the car seat and vehicle manuals to determine the weight limit for LATCH use as it varies for different car seats and vehicles. If your child reaches the weight limits for the anchors but is still within the weight or height limits of the car seat, reinstall the car seat using your vehicle’s seat belt.
A booster seat raises and positions your child so that the vehicle’s lap and shoulder belt fit properly. A booster seat keeps the lap belt from causing injury to the child’s abdomen and keeps the shoulder belt in place to give the child upper body protection. In the event of a crash, an adult seat belt that does not fit a child properly can actually cause injury rather than prevent it, because it doesn’t fit over the strong parts of the child’s body.
What is a top tether?
The top tether is comprised of a strap and accompanying hardware that ‘anchors’ the top of the car seat to the tether anchor in the vehicle. It is a component of the LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) system, developed to help make it easier to install car seats.
Where is it located?
The top tether strap is located on the top rear of many convertible car seats.
How does it work?
By connecting it to a tether anchor, found in many vehicles, the top tether strap helps to limit forward head movement of your child in the car seat in the event of a crash. If your vehicle doesn’t have a top tether anchor, contact the manufacturer or a dealership to see if it can be retrofitted.
When should I use it?
Read your car seat instruction manual for the manufacturer’s recommendations. All car seats should use the top tether strap in the forward-facing position. Some manufacturers recommend using the top tether with a rear-facing convertible seat as well. Your vehicle type, including availability of a tether anchor, will also determine how you use the top tether.
MOST IMPORTANT THING TO REMEMBER: We recommend using the top tether whether you install your car seat using the LATCH system or using the seat belt. With both types of installations, the top tether helps secure the seat and protect your child in the event of a crash.
3-in-1 Car Seat: Offer you the advantage of using the same seat for the following positions: rear-facing, forward-facing with harness, then booster. Please note: some manufacturers call 3-in-1 car seats to those that go from FF Harnessed, Booster with Back to Backless booster (No rear facing mode).
Aftermarket products: Parts and products sold for replacement or as accessories to original equipment – sometimes referred to as “non-regulated” products. Not recommended for use with car seats, unless produced and allowed by original car seat manufacturer for use with its product. Check instructions.
All-in-One: Offer you the advantage of using the same seat for the following positions: rear-facing, forward-facing with harness, then booster.
Automatic Locking Retractor: provides the ability to “lock” the seat belt at a set position. This is an important piece when installing car seats. Check vehicle manufacturer’s manual for more information.
Anchor: A tether anchor is a piece of hardware in the vehicle that a car seat’s top tether hooks to. Lower anchors are horizontal bars in the vehicle seat that provide a secure anchor for the car seat’s lower attachments.
Belt-positioning booster seat (BPB): A booster seat raises your child so that the vehicle lap and shoulder adult seat belts restrain him or her safely.
Belt path: The path that the seat belt or LATCH strap passes around or through the car seat. Some seats have multiple belt paths. For example, convertible car seats (please see below) have one belt path for rear-facing use and a separate one for forward-facing use.
Booster seat: A booster seat correctly positions the seat belt by “boosting” the child so the lap and shoulder belt fit properly. The lap belt should be low and tight across the hips and the shoulder belt should fit cross the chest and not rest against the neck or face. Proper belt fit is very important. Booster seats can have high back (for use in vehicles with no head restraint) or no back/backless (for use in vehicles with head restraint).
Buckle: Accepts the latch plate and holds the seat belt in place.
Car seat: A child restraint (CR), a child restraint system (CRS), or a child restraint device (CRD): A crash-tested seat, device or system that is specially designed to provide child crash protection. General terms for these systems including child safety seats, car seats, boosters or booster seats, vests or car beds, and which meet Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 213.
Caregiver: A person responsible for a child's well-being and safety.
CPS: Child passenger safety
Car bed: A restraint, usually for small, premature, or medically fragile babies who should ride lying down either on their backs or on their stomachs. In most cases, the baby lies flat. The vehicle seat belt is used to anchor the car bed perpendicular to the direction of travel. The infant's head is placed toward the center of the vehicle and not next to the door. An internal harness secures the child in the car bed. Be sure to carefully read the instructions as there may be other methods of securing allowed for certain car beds.
Chest Clip: The chest clip is the part on the harness straps of the child safety seat used to position the straps properly on the child. The chest clip should be placed at armpit level.
Children with special transportation needs: Children whose physical or behavioral conditions sometimes make the use of specially designed restraint systems necessary.
Combination seat: A type of forward-facing car seat that is used with an internal harness system to secure a child. With removal of the internal harness, it is used as a belt-positioning booster.
Convertible seat: A car seat that converts from rear-facing for babies and smaller children to forward-facing for older and larger children.
Detachable base: A separate base for a rear-facing only car seat that can be installed in the vehicle. The car seat portion can be removed from the base, and used as a carrier.
Emergency locking retractor: A retractor on a seat belt system that locks when the vehicle slows or stops suddenly.
Forward-facing car seat: A car seat intended for use only in the forward-facing position for a child at least age 1 and at least 20 pounds up to the specified limits of the seat, set by the manufacturer.
Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard: Regulations that define minimum safety performance requirements for motor vehicles or items of motor vehicle equipment. These regulations are intended to protect the public against unreasonable risk of crashes that occur as a result of the design, construction, or performance of motor vehicles. The regulations are also designed to protect the public against unreasonable risk of death or injury in the event crashes do occur. The one that applies to car seats is FMVSS 213.
Harness: Rear-facing, forward-facing, combination, convertible, 3-in-1, and all-in-1 car seats come equipped with harness straps which are fed through harness slots. These straps keep the child securely within the car seat to minimize the impact of a crash by spreading the energy over the strongest parts of the body.
Harness buckle: The device that secures the straps that contact your child’s shoulders, hips, and groin.
Harness retainer clip: See chest clip.
Harness adjuster: Used to tighten or loosen the harness of a car seat.
Harness slot: The part of the car seat where the harness straps pass from the front to the back of the car seat. Seats come with at least one and as many as four sets of slots. Always remember that for rear facing seats the harness straps should be placed in the slots at or below the child’s shoulders and for forward-facing seats the harness straps should be placed in the slots at or above the child’s shoulders.
High-back booster seat: See Belt positioning booster
Infant-only seat: See Rear-facing only seat
Inspection station: A dedicated location staffed by Certified Child Passenger Safety technicians needed to regularly teach parents and caregivers how to install their car seats. An inspection station may also be referred to as a “checking station.”
Labels: These are located on the seat, and indicate the following: (1) Meets Federal standards for safety; (2) Weight and height guidelines for the specific seat; (3) basic outline of the installation procedures; (4) manufacturing data, including date of manufacture, the manufacturer’s name and address, and a model number; (5) Air bag warning; and (6) Federal Aviation Administration certification for use in an aircraft.
LATCH: Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children. Attachments on a LATCH-equipped car seat fasten to lower anchors and a tether anchor in a LATCH-equipped vehicle. LATCH is required on most car seats and most vehicles manufactured on or after September 1, 2002. System used to help make child restraint installation easier.
Lap belt: A seat belt secured to the framework of a seat or car and fastening across the lap of a driver or a passenger.
Latch plate: The seat belt part that connects the seat belt webbing to a buckle in the vehicle.
Level indicator: A safety benefit that helps parents and caregivers identify the manufacturer's recommended correct recline angle for rear-facing seats. The recline angle is important especially for young babies as it keeps their fragile necks and heads from falling forward and restricting their airways.
Lower anchorage attachments: Part of the LATCH system, a piece of belt webbing that clips or clamps onto to the lower anchorage on the vehicle structure. These attachments are used in place of the vehicle seat belt to secure the car seat to the vehicle.
Rear-facing: Refers to the position where the child's car seat is turned to face the back of the vehicle. The rear-facing position supports the entire head, neck, and back, cradles and moves with the child to reduce stress to the neck and spinal cord in a crash.
Rear-facing only seat: A child restraint system designed for use only by a young child in a rear-facing position – also called an “Infant-only” seat.
Recalls: Voluntary or required actions taken by manufacturers in conjunction with NHTSA to correct problems or deficiencies once products have been distributed or sold. Manufacturers must offer free repairs or replacement for products recalled for violations of safety standards.
Recline adjustor: Adjusts the angle of the car seat so the child is in the proper position in either the rear-facing or forward-facing position (when child has outgrown the seat limits for rear-facing use).
Registration card: A postage-paid return card that comes with every car seat; should be returned to the manufacturer so owners can be notified of any recalls.
Retractor: A mechanism that works with the seat belts to gather and store extra seat belt webbing.
Retrofitted: Installing, fitting, or adapting a device or system for use with something older. An example of this would be to retrofit seat belts to a school bus that did not come equipped with seat belts.
Safety belt: See Seat belt
Seat belt: The webbing, anchor, and buckle system that restrains a passenger or car seat in a vehicle; also known as a safety belt.
Seat Belt Syndrome: A range of symptoms that might occur as a result of the seat belt doing its job in a crash or sudden braking. Children should be buckled in with a lap and shoulder belt, to provide upper body protection. If a child uses a lap belt only, he or she can suffer internal organ injuries and injuries to the lumbar spine (lower back).
Smart Air Bag System: Also known as advanced air bags. A smart air bag system detects when a child is present and automatically deactivates the air bag or enables it to deploy safely. Manufacturers who do not provide a qualifying “smart” system would be required to have new and more prominent air bag warning labels inside the vehicle. Manufacturers would also be permitted to install cutoff switches so parents can deactivate the passenger air bag when a child is seated in front of it.
Snug harness: Harness straps that do not allow slack; the strap lies in a relatively straight line without sagging yet does not press into the child's shoulders creating an indentation. You should not be able to pinch the webbing vertically.
Switchable retractor: A retractor that can be switched from emergency locking retractor to an automatic locking retractor for use when installing car seats.
Technician: A person who successfully completes the standardized Child Passenger Safety Technician certification course. The certification courses use a NHTSA training course and Safe Kids Worldwide serves as the certifying body.
Tether: See Tether strap or see Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children (LATCH)
Tether anchor: The kit or installed hardware bracket used to secure the tether hook and strap at the designated anchor point in the vehicle. The tether strap and hook attach directly to the anchor bracket.
Tether strap: Belt webbing that anchors the top of the car seat to the vehicle. It helps to keep the restraint from moving forward and reduces head movement in a crash. Should be used when installing a car seat using the seat belt or the LATCH system.
Webbing: The fabric part of the seat belt that crosses the body and holds a person or a car seat in place.