The Picture Guide to Car Seat Safety

I’ve written a ton about car seat safety. Many people do. This device is the only device you absolutely have to buy for a baby or your child can die. You can rig random things to function as child-proofing at home or pick up things from a garage sale, but when it comes to your car seat, it HAS to be new, it HAS to be good quality, it HAS to be the right seat for your child and you HAVE to use it right or your child can DIE. I don’t know that I can make it any clearer than that.

Now, don’t get me wrong — I made my fair share of mistakes, and continued to make some for years, but kept improving. I have no problems with people who intend to learn and do better as they know more. It’s admirable, and it’s the best anyone can ask for. Whether or not you feel this post is helpful for you, please share it so that maybe it can get to people who can benefit, or more, whose children will benefit, possibly making the difference between life and death.

And without further ado, here’s my picture guide to car seat safety, in DOs and DON’Ts.


Chest Clip: The name is self-explanatory, so I thought. It belongs between armpit and nipple level. Nowhere else, ever.

Risk: The clip on the belly can damage internal organs and doesn’t hold the straps properly over the chest as they’re designed to do, meaning your child could be ejected from their seat.

Aftermarket Products: Do not use anything on your seat that did not come with it.

Risk: Aside from voiding your warranty, all manufacturer liability and being denied a replacement seat in a crash, things added can damage the straps or interfere with function of the seat.


Harness Straps: Straps need to be about as tight as you can get them without hurting the child. Try The Pinch Test each time you buckle your kiddo in, just to be sure.

Risk: Loose straps do not hold the child in the seat. They can be partially ejected, which can damage any part of their body that is caught, or totally ejected and fly into the window, seats, another person or out of the car entirely. This is the most common mistake.


Harness Height: For rear-facing, the straps must be AT OR BELOW the shoulders. For forward-facing, AT OR ABOVE. You may put a popsicle stick or butter knife in the slot to test, since sometimes the covers can make it hard to tell where the slot is in the shell.

Risk: When rear-facing, any additional space above the shoulders works similarly to having a loose harness — it’s dangerous extra room. Also, when hit head-on (as with 79%) of accidents, you want to prevent the child’s body from flying upwards against the back of the seat, but instead allow the seat to take the impact. Only having the straps below the shoulders keeps the child safely in place.

Angle: The seat needs to be reclined between a 30-45 degree angle. Once children are older and have better neck control, they can be at up to a 30 degree angle. When switching from an infant car seat to a convertible, this change in angle can allow a convertible to take up LESS room than the infant seat, debunking the “I can’t rear-face in my car” myth. If you can fit an infant seat rear-facing, a convertible fits too.

Risk: If the seat is too upright, the body can’t slide along at the intended angle, and in smaller babies without sufficient head control that results in the head dropping down onto the chest, this could restrict breathing.


Bulky Clothes : Children should be dressed in warm-but-thin clothing, then buckled in their seat, and then have warm layers placed on top of them. (See my video here.)

Risk: In an accident, all the air in bulky clothing compresses, like a “Space Saver” bag, leaving the harness incredibly loose and putting the child at risk to be ejected from the seat.


Rear-facing: Children should remain rear-facing in their car seat until they outgrow it by weight or height (less than an inch of headroom from the top of the shell). Two years is the youngest any child should be forward-facing. Children bend their legs, even as they get older.

Risk: Babies and toddlers have weak spines that haven’t fused to protect the spinal cord, and they have proportionately huge heads, and when forward-facing, the weight of the large head pulls on the weak spine, and can separate the skull from the spine, possibly severing the spinal cord (internal decapitation), resulting in paralysis or death. Also, the way the body slides when rear-facing helps the car and car seat absorb the maximum amount of centrifugal force so your baby’s body doesn’t have to — children are 75% less likely to die when rear-facing. Everyone is, actually, but it’s just not possible for adults. As far as their legs? Not only would leg breaks be preferable to a broken neck, but forward-facing children are more likely to break their legs than rear-facing children.


Harnessing: Safe Kids and the American Academy of Pediatrics, amongst many car seat manufacturers, recommend you keep your child forward-facing in a 5-point harness until the limits of their seats, which in many newer seats range from 50-85 pounds. 4 years and 40 pounds is the bare minimum, but most children are not mature enough until they’re 5-7 years old.

Risk: A child who isn’t big enough for a booster can slide out under the belt, called “submarining”, can have the belt sit on their belly or neck and cause internal damage to the gut or the esophagus and trachea. A child who will not sit upright, with the belt over their hip bones and over their collar bone, or tries to put their arm over the belt or the shoulder belt behind their back is not mature enough to sit in a booster, and a child who constantly falls asleep in the car should also be in a harness or they can be seriously injured in a crash. There’s some debate that heavier (60-70 pound+) children may be safer in a seatbelt, but currently the recommendation is still to wait until they outgrow their harness.


Booster Seats: Children need booster seats until they’re 8-12 years old, AND 4’9″ and preferably also 80-100 pounds. Seatbelts are designed to fit the average adult — not children of any age. The strap cannot touch their necks and the lap belt should be across the hip bones, not the soft belly.

Risk: Children who are not large enough risk many things similar to putting a child in a booster too early — damage to their internal organs, throat and windpipe and the entire body in general. Not to mention, children moved prematurely out of boosters are often quite uncomfortable! Kids must meet the 5-Step-Test before they can go without a booster, something most children don’t meet until closer to 10-12.


There’s just so much to proper car seat use that I couldn’t possibly cover it here, and it’s OKAY if you’ve got something wrong. We all have screwed up at some point. Everyone who helped me with pictures for this post was aware of what I was doing, and some of the “wrong” photos are staged — but some are not. Some are from before moms learned and improved. It’s not a problem if you make mistakes… when it becomes a problem is when you’d rather be right than DO right, at the cost of your child’s life.

Thank you to all the moms in my Facebook “Car Seats for the Littles” and CafeMom “Car Seat Safety” group for all the pictures!

Visit a local Safe Kids inspection station or event, read your manual, ask questions and make changes.

Check out some of my previous guides to car seat safety:

7 Rules for Buying & Installing a Car Seat

9 Lifesaving Car Seat Rules You’re Probably Ignoring

6 Car Seat Mistakes Parents Don’t Realize They’re Making

Rear-Facing Car Seats Aren’t Just for Babies Anymore

7 Car Seat Safety Rules You Still May Have Missed

Booster Seat Safety: Most Moms Know Nothing

6 Tips for Winter Car Seat Safety (this has my video too!)


About Christie Haskell

I'm a Pagan, pierced, latte-sipping liberal mom to two kids and a cat. I've been on Good Morning America, HuffPo Live, and featured in a lot of online publications like New York Times Motherlode, and print publications like Kiwi Magazine. My articles focus a lot on parenting, food, and social health issues. I'm really opinionated and love to back those opinions with facts.

106 Responses

  1. Sonya Greene

    Then there is no question of their body’s ability to handle the next step. It’s a combo seat (harness to booster – same as the Frontier and Nautilus), but the booster is usually outgrown about the same time as the harness.


  2. Catherine Mack

    Maybe you could label the vertical axis and/or flip the graph image for those of us with multiple small children, reading this while sleep deprived. But as you can see, that’s a lot of requirements, which no 5-6 year old fits, outside those with the rare medical problem that would make them exceptionally large… and in that case, they’d be more at risk because their spine is still the same strength as the children of smaller weight, so they’ve have more force working against an immature spine. We fear the crazy drunk plowing into our family, when that’s far less likely to happen that US either plowing into someone because we are distracted, or allowing someone to plow into us because we are not paying enough attention to take evasive action.


  3. Christa

    I found this very informative, thank you. I have a 7 year old and a 6 months old. The 6 month old is obviously in a rear facing seat but i cannot buckle both a seat and a booster in my back seat, there is just not enough room. The infant seat has to be in the center because it won’t fit behind the front seats and the booster seats are too wide to fit next to the infant seat. Seeing as my 7 year old is tall, the seat belt fits her correctly but there should be an option (other than buying a new car) for this problem.


  4. I was more than happy to uncover this great site. I need to to thank you for your time due to this fantastic read!! I definitely liked every bit of it and I have you book-marked to check out new things on your site.


  5. Beth

    Awesome site!!! I am amazed that some parents don’t take car seats more seriously. I see my friends post car seat pictures on facebook all the time that are in need of correction. Thanks for the visuals!!


  6. Lindsi

    THANK YOU!! I have so many friends whose kids are buckled incorrectly and I don’t have the guts to say anything. BUT I do have the guts to re-post to my FB wall 🙂


  7. Pam

    What do you recommend for older/larger children who have out grown all boosters and seats. My son is over 4’9″ and 120lbs. there are no seats for him but the seat belt in the car comes up too high on his neck and he always falls asleep in the car. What should I do?


  8. Great guide! The pictures really help make it clear, thank you. I’m showing my boys the one about the loose harness so they have a better idea about how tight they really need to be (they always think I’m being so mean by tightening them!) I’ve included a link to your post in my post about reducing car seat battles. Thank you so much for all your work. I can’t believe you got all those pictures together!


  9. Rachael Wood

    I watched your video on testing your harness with a coat on, and noticed a different safety concern.
    Did you know that loose sleepwear is a safety hazard?
    Children can get tangled in it and either strangle or not be able to move properly in an emergency situation. Also, if you happen to have a home fire, loose clothing can ignite more easily during escape.
    Hope this helps!


  10. kandi6000

    Some of your information is not up to date. Five point forward facing boosters can be used for age two and up, which may be necessary when you have a large child.


  11. Kristy

    I know from first hand that seat belts saves lives. My son was in a front end wreck both cars was going 60mph on Apri 9th. He came out with a broken arm. but there other 2 that was in the wreck was serious. If my son wasn’t buckle up like hes suppose too it would have been bad. So moms and dad please put your child in a car seat right.


  12. michelle

    I love this, I work in a gym childcare. I don’t know how many parents bring their babies in with messed up carseats. Most the time the straps r super loose and the chest straps at their tummy. Sometimes the strap is messed up. When I see this I always talk to the babies family and show and tell them how their straps should look. I had a mom say her doctor told her if the chest strap was at arm pit level her child could choke. I was like WHAT! But now I can just show her this site.


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  14. Hi Christie,
    I shared some of your photos on my blog, with a link back to your page. I hope that is ok!? Please let me know if you need me to add anything to my blog stating where I found them.


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