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Car seats do an amazing job of keeping kids safe. They’re also extremely complicated to use (that’s why I wrote an entire FREE book to help you do it right). When you’re under time pressure to do it quickly, it’s easy to forget the fundamentals of how to install a car seat properly.
We’ve been there and done that. Pushy drivers, crying babies, slippery seats… the works, sometimes all at once. Take a few minutes to read these tips for how to properly install a car seat fast to prepare yourself and boost your confidence. After all, our #1 job as parents is to keep our kids safe and car seats are one thing we have control of.
Don’t miss these 5 quick car seat installation tips:
Practice and prepare
Don’t be that idiot who cuts the tags off of the new car seat on the airport and then struggles for an hour in the parking lot of the Phoenix rental car depot at 11pm with a crying baby and a cranky husband staring at your every move. Leave that to me.
No, you’re better than that. Make sure you’ve practiced installing your new car seat at least a few times before you find yourself in a high-pressure situation. Peruse the manual. Hop on Youtube and search for [your car seat] and “installation”. Every car seat has its quirks, and it’s so helpful if you can figure them out in advance.
It’s a really good idea to try out both a LATCH install (if your kid is still small enough) and a seatbelt install. You’ll want to have both in your toolkit if you won’t know if advance what kind of car you’ll be installing in.
I do recommend bringing your manual with you. Many car seats have a storage compartment somewhere on the seat itself, but if you’re on the go and don’t have it you can always download it straight from the manufacturers website. In a pinch, the stickers on the sides usually include the basic guidelines like what installation methods work for each direction and weight. There are even small pictures showing the correct position for the seatbelt or lower anchor strap.
Check your stats
ICYMI: Kids grow, sometimes fast.
If you’re traveling with a brand new car seat or one that you only use for travel and have shoved in a closet for the last six months, break it out a few days before your trip. Bring it into your family room and have your kid take a seat.
While they sit in the car seat and watch yet another episode of Daniel Tiger, start adjusting. Check the stickers on the side of the car seat to make sure they still fit in the direction you planned on. Make sure that the shoulder straps are at the right height: just below their shoulders for rear facing, just above the shoulders for forward facing. If your car seat has a no-rethread harness like our convertible car seats then this step is no big deal.
Check to see if the crotch strap needs to be moved out (usually it should be in the slot closest to their body that isn’t underneath them). If the car seat has adjustable hip straps, see if those need to be moved to a wider slot too.
Some of those adjustments can be made while your child is sitting in the car seat. For others, you can eyeball it while they sit in the seat and then adjust after they get up.
After you’ve made all your adjustments, test it out and see if it looks and feels right when your kid is strapped in.
If you find that your child has outgrown rear-facing mode but you still want to install with LATCH forward-facing, move the lower anchor strap to the forward-facing position from the comfort of your own home. On some seats (hello, Evenflo) it can take a few minutes of fiddling to get it done.
If your child has outgrown the forward-facing mode of your combination seat and is mature enough to ride in a booster seat, do the conversion at home for sure. Some of them can take 10-20 minutes the first time around. You may need to consult both your manual and YouTube.
It may sound neurotic to do all that in advance, but I guarantee that it’s easier than installing your car seat in a taxi and then realizing that the harness is set too low.
Once you’re ready to install your car seat, there’s an extremely valuable trick for doing it well and quickly without shedding a drop of sweat (or a tear): go undercover.
By that, I mean go under the cover. This is a trick I learned in my CPST training. Once you have the seatbelt or the LATCH strap through the belt path, tightening it can be a challenge.
If you’re installing with the seatbelt, make sure you’ve locked it. Next, find the place on the car seat cover where you can separate it from the shell closest to where you buckled it. While you push in the seat with your hand (no knees!) pull the seatbelt or the tail of the LATCH strap tight behind the cover.
Why does the make it easier? You have a lot more leverage than if you’re working with the seatbelt all the way at the top. For a LATCH installation, you’ll have the tail parallel to the main part of the strap, which allows it to move more freely through the LATCH connector.
As with all the rest, you’ll want to practice with your own seat in advance to learn its ins and outs. But this method makes it a lot faster to get a tight installation on most car seats!
Special note for overseas travel: If you’ll installing with the seatbelt and you’re in a country where the seatbelts don’t lock (or you can’t be sure in advance) be sure to read this article about locking clips and how to use them.
Know where your top tether is
It’s extremely important to use a top tether for forward-facing car seats whenever possible. It reduces head movement by up to 6″ and can prevent serious injuries. Use your top tether!
“Oh shit, where’s the top tether?” I can’t tell you how many times one of us has said that. You’d think we would have learned by now. I can tell you from personal experience that uninstalling your car seat and then installing it a second time is not as fast as just installing it once.
How can you avoid the double-installation conundrum? Before you start your installation process, flip the top tether strap over to the front of the seat. That serves a few important purposes. First, it prevents the top tether strap from getting stuck behind the seat back. Second, it would be mighty uncomfortable for your kid to rest against it so you’re very unlikely to forget about the top tether altogether.
Keep your cool
Above all, stay calm. In high-pressure situations like installing your car seat in a taxi, Uber or Lyft it’s easy to feel stressed out and like you don’t have time to do it right.
Take a deep breath. You’ve got this. Remember that your child’s safety is more important than an extra two minutes. Just think back to your fundamentals: get the angle right and then make sure the car seat doesn’t move more than 1″ from side to side along the belt path when you give it a firm handshake.
If something doesn’t seem right, don’t let a pushy driver or spouse shake your confidence. Just pause, regroup and do what you need to do – being flustered won’t make you faster!
Pin this to read before your next trip!