The Ultimate Guide to Properly Installing Your Child's Car Seat

NHTSA says 46% of car seats are installed incorrectly. Ensuring your kid's car seat is correctly installed is crucial for their safety.

Sean Jackson
Sean Jackson is a creative copywriter living in Florida. He's had work published with Realtor.com, theScore, ESPN, and the San Francisco Chronicle. In his free time, Sean likes to play drums, fail miserably at improv and spend time at the beach.
Sean Jackson
5 min read
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Car seats are vital to protecting your children if a car accident happens. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention note kids buckled into car seats were 71% to 82% less likely to incur an injury during an accident compared to those wearing only seat belts.

Of the 91,000 children who died from fatal car accidents in 2019, 38% were not wearing the proper restraints. Ensuring your child has the correct car seat for their age and size could be a life-saving measure. Car seats are also a legal requirement in most states.

Our guide helps you learn how to properly install a car seat.

Read moreBest Car Seats for 2022

How to install an infant or toddler car seat 

The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that 46% of car seats are used incorrectly. If you're unsure you've installed your car seat correctly, or just want to make absolutely sure, you can get a free inspection from a trained professional at a police department, fire department, hospital, car dealership or many other municipal facilities. Just put your ZIP code into NHTSA's website here for a list of local options.

If this is your first time installing a car seat, here are some simple tips you can follow to ensure your child has the proper protection. 

1. Start by placing the base on the seat. Many car seats come with angle adjusters. Adjust it to read between 30 and 45 degrees. 

2. Next, run the seat belt through the seat belt path. The car seat will have arrows indicating where this is. You want to make sure the belt buckles, then you pull the shoulder portion of the belt while holding the base down with your hand to tighten it. It prevents the car seat from moving around during transport. You also want to check the tightness of the belt, as it should be one inch or less from the belt path. Recheck the angle indicators to verify they remain between 30 and 45 degrees.

3. If you're driving a vehicle made from 2002 onwards, it will feature the LATCH system (we'll get into further detail later in the guide). You can use this instead of the seat belt. Look for the LATCH anchors on the vehicle's seat. Remove the buckles from the back or side of the car seat and buckle them into the anchors. You'll know they're secure when they click into place. 

4. Set the rear-facing seat into the base until you hear it click. That ensures it's in the proper position. Place your child into it with their back up against the seat. Now, you want to use the harness to secure them. You want to make sure the straps are level with their shoulders before buckling the harness. Finally, you want to check for tightness using the pinch test. If you can pinch the belt together, it's too loose, and you need to tighten it. Take the retainer clip and place it across your child's chest level with their armpits.

baby in a car seat
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How to install a car seat for preschoolers

Pay close attention to your car seat's height and weight requirements before moving your child to a forward-facing one. When they're ready to make the switch, here are some tips to make installation go smoothly.

1. Like other car seats, you start by making sure it's firmly in place and at the right angle. Make sure your car is parked on a level surface before installing the seat for the best results. This gives you a correct reading from your angle indicators. 

2. Use the top latch to lock them firmly. Doing this prevents your child from moving forward by six to eight inches if a crash occurs. You can secure them using the anchors in your vehicle -- refer to your vehicle's owner's manual to discover where these are. It will prevent you from securing the car seat to a cargo hook.

3. Place your child in the car seat. You'll know they're in the proper position when the harness straps are at or above shoulder level.

Read moreThese Are the Best Vehicles for Car Seats, According to Cars.com

How to install a booster seat 

As your child grows, they'll eventually exceed car seat height or weight limits. Many models have weight limits ranging from 40 to 90 pounds. And you'll know they're too tall for the car seat when their ears are at the same level as the top of the seat. 

If either or both apply, they're graduating to a booster seat. Give your child the proper protection with the following tips.

1. A booster seat goes over the regular seat of a vehicle. You can secure the booster seat using the LATCH anchors or strap them in using the seat belt. 

2. There should be a lap and shoulder restraint. The lap belt should rest over your child's upper thighs while the shoulder restraint goes across the middle of their chest. 

3. Make sure these restraints are tight by doing the pinch test. If you notice much slack (you can press parts of the belt together), you need to tighten the restraint. 

4. Your child should use the booster seat until they reach a height of around 4 feet, 9 inches -- this can occur between the ages of 8 and 12. 

parent straps a child into a front-facing car seat
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What is the LATCH system?

The LATCH system is the most effective way to protect your child. NHTSA reported properly installed car seats saved 325 lives in car accidents occurring in 2017

The LATCH system, which stands for lower anchors and tethers for children, helps you install car seats properly. Most vehicles produced after 2002 must have one. The system features anchor points in your car that allow you to secure the car seat. 

Typically, your vehicle comes with two lower metal anchors. You can find these wedged between or protruding from your car's cushions. However, some models hide these in the seat, but you can find the icons where the anchors reside. These allow you to secure the base of the car seat. 

And there are three top tethers. The top tethers stop your child from lurching forward during an accident, preventing them from suffering head trauma. Again, you might have to do some digging to identify where they are. They could be under your seat, on the floor or on the rear window shelf. Your vehicle's owner's manual is an invaluable resource for locating them.

Read more: How to Clean A Car Seat in 6 Easy Steps

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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.