Friday, December 3, 2010

Take off winter jackets in car seats

Mikko disinterestedly models the proper
way to wear a seat belt over a jacket
Today I'm bringing you a little safety bulletin for winter car safety when you're driving with little ones.

Heavy winter coats don't belong on kids in carseats.

Oh, I know, I'm sitting here in my ivory tower, aka 40-something-degree weather, telling you you have to disrobe your babies before placing them in your freezing car.

But, the thing is, you cannot always get a car seat's straps tight enough to be safe over a bulky winter jacket or snowsuit, or even a heavy sweater.

In a collision, the jacket's padding will compress under the high forces presented and your precious cargo will be subject to being flung around instead of safely contained. For a child in a booster seat, this could even mean coming out of the seatbelt entirely.

So what can you do to keep your tots toasty and safe?

Mikko notices the camera
and yells "No pictures!"
Here's a trick I learned on my own but now see endorsed by car safety technician Jen from, so I feel better passing it along to you.
  1. Put your child into the seat without the jacket. Tighten the harness so that it's safely snug.
  2. Now leave it at that tightness for when you put your child in with a jacket on.
  3. Pull the jacket off the child's shoulders a little and unzip it down the front; then push the harness to the inside of the jacket so that most or all of the straps contact with the child's regular shirt instead of the jacket.
  4. Does the harness still buckle at the same tightness of the child with just a shirt? Then it's tight enough even with your child's jacket on.
  5. To keep your child warm, you can now zip or otherwise fasten (Velcro, snap) the front closed over the harness and straps.
If your child's jacket failed the fit test or you were unable to push it out of the way of the straps, take it off entirely and use a different method of keeping your child warm:
Mikko prevents photo from being taken
  1. Put the jacket on backwards after fastening the harness, or just lay it over your child's lap and tuck it in on the sides to stay put.
  2. Keep a warm blanket in the back seat to lay over your little one. If the blanket would be too cold after having been in the car, carry it in your diaper bag instead. For young babies, make sure you tuck the blanket in well at waist level so it can't ride up and be a suffocation hazard.
  3. For infant car seats, there are specialty covers you can buy or sew to keep out the drafts.
  4. Start the car before putting your baby in to get the heat going (only if this is safe in your neighborhood or you have a remote starter!).
  5. Take the bus. :P

(I use this trick on myself, too! If I don't want to take off my coat entirely, I make sure to slip my seatbelt underneath it so it's holding me and not my jacket.)

[ETA, since a commenter mentioned there are no studies showing that winter jacket use in car seats is unsafe: I couldn't find specific studies showing winter jackets leading to injuries, but there is plenty of evidence that loose harnesses, the danger behind bulky winter jackets, lead to injury risk. For instance, here's a PDF of several motor vehicle accidents involving children that lists the causes for the injuries and fatalities, and the causes include many mentions of loose harnesses contributing to injuries, particularly neck and head injuries. Despite the dry tone of this report, I will warn you in advance that it is heartbreaking to read. Here's another report stating that a significant cause of car seat misuse is loose harnesses.]

Know how to keep your kids extra safe?

I can't resist, in any car-seat safety article, not putting in a bonus plug for extended rear-facing. The current recommendations in the U.S. from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are at least a year and twenty pounds, but going longer than both is best for your baby's spine, as [ETA, thanks to commenters] the American Academy of Pediatrics and car safety advocates recommend.

The pressures on forward-facing children are much more dangerous toward their immature spines. It's best to leave your toddler rear facing for as long as your car seat's weight and height limits will allow. Some of the newer models go up to 40 pounds, which is excellent and should serve you for at least a few years of safe rear facing.

Just keep the jacket out of the way!


Anonymous said...

Loved this post! Just posted about this myself with some great tips :)

TopHat said...

Thanks for the reminder! I do the put-the-jacket-on-backwards-after-bucking method. But simply having a blanket in the car for that? Genius and simple! Why didn't I think of that?!

Jenny said...

I was wondering about this the other day, because I've been buckling the kids in with coats on. They are really bulky--I'll have to start using one of these suggestions. Car seats are so aggravating, but unfortunately necessary. I forwarded this to my mom. My parents have gotten better about it, but we've really had to watch our in-laws because they tend to not pull the straps nearly tight enough, coat or no coat. Drives me nuts.

Unknown said...

THANK you for this! I'm really ashamed to say that I honestly didn't know about this.

Casey said...

I hate the winter carseat season. I know and have heard/read many times that kids are not supposed to wear coats in the car. Unfortunately, it's so much easier to recommend and to say that than it is to actually do it. I live in a place where there are temperatures that are far below zero for extended lengths of time in the winter. I also have an unattached unheated garage. Every year I struggle with how to handle this issue.

Blankets aren't warm enough for the short trips when the car doesn't warm up. My kids don't like to put their coats on backward. My older son doesn't like the feel of his coat buckled over the straps. Basically the entire winter going anywhere is a struggle.

Momma Jorje said...

I always try to make sure the carseat is tight enough with the hoodie or coat (I tighten it every time anyway), but hadn't really thought about this. In fact, her coat is even a slick fabric on the outside, so I could see this being a major issue. I do slide the harness up to her armpits, but still...

And not safe here to run our truck to warm it up (only 1 key & apartment life)... but I will definitely try on these suggestions. Thank you for watching out for all of us. :-)

On the rear-facing, though... what do you say to the concern of broken legs if the child can be flat-footed against the back of the seat? My mother said just cross their legs, but there is no way Sasha would stay that way.

Unknown said...

Jorje - broken legs are 'better' than a broken neck. I would be devastated if even that happened, but it is more acceptable to me than paralysis or death.

Sarah Beth Nelson said...

Thanks for this post. Last winter V was so new it was easy to bundle blankets on top of her in the car seat. This winter has been more of a challenge, but I'll definitely try out some of your tips.

Unknown said...

I have yet to see an actually study backing this stuff up. Yes, bloggers and car seat techs say that it's the way use carseats in the winter...but where is ANY government recommendation? Or how about a study done by a car company? Or a car seat company for that matter.
Yes I know, better safe than sorry.

aplus2ds said...

I would believe car seat techs over the government!

Claire said...

Great to see some awareness about coats in car seats, however I wouldn't advise doing a jacket up over the straps. in the event of an accident they need to get your child out quickly. If your child seems like it isn't strapped in this will waste valuable time as they go to pick kid up, realise they can't, undo coat, undo seat straps....
also, there will still be plenty of bulk BEHIND the baby if it's a thick coat, you're only removing one layer from the front.

Blanket is a much better idea, this is what we do, just keep 2 really big fleece blankets in the back which stretch across all 3 children!

Lauren Wayne said...

halfwaycrunchy: Great minds! :) Lots more stellar tips at Halfway Crunchy, all.

TopHat: We have a super cozy baby blanket my aunt made for Mikko that is flannel, batting, and fuzzy fleece. That's our perfect one for the car (or snuggling on the couch). I'm going to make an extra, actually, so we can keep one both inside and out.

Jenny: That is hard, when you have to rely on someone else's safety instincts, or lack thereof. :(

Nadja: I'm always learning new things about car seats!

Casey: I'll add as a suggestion to the list: Move somewhere warmer. ;) We used to live in the Midwest & would frequently just feel the heat kicking in once we'd arrived at our destination, shivering. It's definitely annoying. I hope you can work with your kids to figure out a way that might work for them. Maybe heat up some electric blankets inside before trips and bring them out? Maybe that's too complicated!

Momma Jorje: We're in the same boat where we definitely can't start our car from up on the second floor here in the city, but there are some people I know in secluded residential neighborhoods who love their remote starters. Here are a couple broken leg links for you:
"What if my baby's legs are touching the seat while rear-facing?": "[I]n any crash severe enough to cause broken legs, there would also be great potential for head, neck and spine injuries. So it's a matter of choosing to protect the most important parts. It's much easier to fix a broken leg than a broken neck, for example. At one car seat safety event I attended, one speaker mentioned that broken legs are actually a fairly common injury for children in forward-facing car seats and boosters, so the worry over broken legs while rear-facing may be misplaced all-around."
"Rear-facing": "What about an older rear-facing child's legs—won't they be broken by the back seat? Maybe, but it's unlikely. Again, statistically, the most common type of crash is the frontal crash. Physics tells us that everything will keep moving toward the point of impact, including the child's legs which will fly up. Broken legs are much easier to treat than a broken neck, which is a real risk if a child is turned forward before the neck bones have hardened and the ligaments have developed enough to withstand crash forces. Another recent study tells us that the legs are more likely to receive serious injuries in crashes when a child is forward-facing, most likely from the child's legs impacting the front seatbacks."
And a bonus amazing video that is so convincing for rear facing, showing a boy who suffered severe neck injuries from forward facing: "Front facing or Rear facing?"

Sam said...

Awesome post!

One thing--your current recommendation is a bit outdated ;) The recommendation was changed to a minimum of 2 years or the limit of their seat!

Lauren Wayne said...

Laura: Yes.

Sarah Beth: Car seats and kids are always a challenge, aren't they? There have been times we've skipped the driving just to skip the car seat.

mama3boys: For me, it's more a matter that car seats have been rigorously tested without excess padding or aftermarket products interfering with the straps. As you said, far better safe than sorry.

aplus2ds: Me, too! The government's very conservative in recommending 1 year/20 lbs to turn forward facing, for instance, despite evidence that going longer is better. They mention extended rear facing, but in an offhand fashion.

Claire: My son just keeps his undone, but I can see your point. I don't know how much time is being wasted; I guess in certain crash situations it could be a problem (fire, water, etc.). As far as bulk behind the baby, that's what the fit test is for — if you can tighten it as far as when the baby's just wearing a thin shirt, the child must be compressing any bulk behind him already. A very bulky coat will likely fail the fit test and must be removed.

Lauren Wayne said...

Heather: That's the American Academy of Pediatrics, right? The NHTSA is still doing the 1 year/20 lbs thing. But I hope it's all changing!! I'm glad the AAP is on board.

Lauren Wayne said...

For what it's worth, if it's not clear, my three-year-old is still comfortably and safely rear facing! He has a very high-weight/-height rear-facing seat.

Claire said...

ahh yes, good point about the harness being the same as if they were not wearing a coat, that bit obv hadn't registered with me!

Here in the UK most parents turn their children FF at 9 months old! shocking isn't it? We are one of a growing number of families however that have rear-facing seats for our lot. They're very expensive though as have to be imported :-(

Lauren Wayne said...

Claire: I had heard that about the UK. I'm glad that people like you are aware and willing to import better seats — it's a shame they aren't readily available. :( We were panicking when Mikko hit 30 pounds at 6 months and was slated to outgrow his rear-facing limit (33 lbs at the time) before a year. Now, fortunately, there are seats with higher weight rear-facing limits in the U.S. I guess it takes more and more public opinion to change what's marketed/tested. I'll just add, about the jacket behind: If there's any concern that the straps won't be tightened enough with it on (such as by an alternate caregiver), best to remove it anyway.

Also, despite all this commenting, I forgot to add: Thank you to Sam, who uploaded the pictures for me while I was out running errands with Mikko! I'd already gotten him strapped in, see, so we just took off after the photo shoot. :)

Kristie Walker said...

I was told by an EMT once that if they're able to, they remove the seat from the car with the child in it to guard against possible further spinal damage in a bad crash. So I'm not too worried. :-)

Lorri said...

We live in northern Minnesota and deal with lots of cold weather each year. A fellow mom & friend makes 'car seat coats' and we have appreciated their safety & warmth. You can see them on her website:

Stacie said...

Awesome post--and so glad to know my instincts on this have been right all along! I think at least the AAP is recommended extended rear-facing (up to age two AND at least 30 lbs), but I'm not entirely sure about that?

Unknown said...

I agree with this completely! I am a firefighter/paramedic in the Chicago area and we do carseat installs for residents all the time. In order to be able to do this we receive all of the specialized training on all the types of carseats.

The thickness of the coats makes a big difference because it makes it nearly impossible to tighten the straps correctly...I have four kids in carseats so I know from experience. The way you know the straps are tight enough is when you can slide just two fingers in behind the buckle that is placed at the nipple line. This goes for infant seats as well as the convertible seats and forward-only seats. The kids will often complain that this is too tight but that is the way it should be for safety reasons. So, you see, when you add a bulky soft winter coat your adding bulk at the shoulder, the chest, the waist, and possibly the legs. This makes it much too hard to cinch the straps down to the correct tightness. So, the recommendations given here make complete sense.

As for the rear-facing for longer, GREAT idea! We do it with ours until at least 18 mos. It is understood that many children outgrow their infant carrier before the 1 year mark, some much earlier than a year. Just because a child outgrows an infant carrier does not mean they must be turned around. This is why there are convertible seats, ones that you secure rear-facing when the younger than a year child must be moved out of an infant carrier due to weight. Someone already mentioned that these are good up to about 45 lbs. for a rear facing child. Once that same seat is turned around to forward-facing it's good up to an even greater weight, possibly 60 or 65 lbs. So this allows for rear facing up to a greater weight and age and further protection of the head, neck, and back as the child develops. That seat will last a good, long while being that it is good for both rear and then forward-facing.

The reason these laws and guidelines are in place is simply to protect our most valuable assets, our children. Thanks for this comment thread, it's nice to see that there are people out there that understand why we use safety seats and the correct way to use them!

Unknown said...

Thanks so much for the reminder. I posted it to Facebook hopefully it will inform many others.

Beth said...

So many people don't know this. I actually designed a coat for my little guy so that it won't be under the straps. You can check out:
to find the tutorial.

Jessica Plautz said...

Thanks so much for posting this as I was able to pass it along to some people who seem to think their child having a winter coat on is more important then not being buckled in the seat correctly!

Unknown said...

I didn't know, so thank you so much for writing this! We've totally changed our car seat routine since I read this article.

Kristine said...

Thank you SO MUCH for this post, Hobo Mama! I take off my kid's coat whenever I can, but when it is too cold, I now use your technique. Thank you for the easy to follow pics!
I also really found your latest nursing while pregnant post very useful.
Keep up the awesome writing!

Chrystal @ Happy Mothering said...

Thank you so much for posting this! I really hadn't even thought about it. This is my first winter living in the snow, so I've just been putting the girls in their seats with their coats on. I'll have to pass this info on!

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