Many parents fail to read the instructions from the vehicle manual and the instructions from the car seat manufacturer, writes certified child passenger safety technician Peg Rosen in the current issue of Americanbaby.Com.
By reading the seat belt section of the car manual, Rosen says, parents will be able to custom-fit their child's car seat to their particular vehicle.
She talks about this and other common mistakes parents make on Tuesday's The Early Show.
Following are some of the mistakes she cites.
Mistake: the car seat is loose
The law requires that all cars made after Sept. 1, 2002, be equipped with the "LATCH" system. LATCH stands for Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children.
This system makes it unnecessary to use seat belts to install car seats. "If you do not have LATCH," says Rosen, "you will never achieve a tight fit for your belt unless you lock your seat belt." Most cars on the road were made before Sept. 1 of last year. Those cars' owners have to know how to lock the seat belt to anchor the car seat.
Rosen says she went to school for four days to learn how to install car seats, and there are still car seats that she can't get in properly. She suggests going to an inspection site. "This should be the other checkup that you give your child," she says. "If you have the facility to do this, make an appointment at a certified checking facility just like you go to the doctor. We will check the manufacturer's recall list and we will show you what to do."
Mistake: Baby is facing forward too soon
"Car seat manuals and children safety advocates tell parents that a child must never face forward in a car seat until he is 1 year old and weighs 20 pounds," she writes in her article. "What many of these warnings neglect to emphasize, however, is that 1 year and 20 pounds is the absolute minimum. The reality is that the longer a child can be properly restrained facing rear, the better."
Here's why: "If an infant is facing forward in a frontal crash - the most common and most violent type of collision - his body is held back by the car seat's straps, but his head is not. While an older child or adult might end up with a temporary neck injury from this, a baby's or toddler's immature neck bones and pliable ligaments can allow the spine to separate and the spinal cord to rip," Rosen says.
"The bottom line: Having an older toddler in a rear-facing car seat during a violent crash can mean the difference between his walking away from the situation or being paralyzed for life - or even killed," she explains.
When a child grows out of an infant-only car seat, Rosen recommends a convertible car seat, installed facing the rear until the maximum weight or height the manufacturer recommends. That should be about 30 pounds or until the child's head comes within an inch of the top of the seat, she says. The child's legs may be scrunched up, but that's not dangerous and generally not uncomfortable.
Mistake: not using booster seats for older children
Rosen says many parents believe that three-and a-half-year olds no longer need a car seat. That's wrong. "An older child may seem pretty big and sturdy compared with his baby brother, but he's just as vulnerable if he's put into an adult lap and shoulder belt before he's ready," she writes. Instead of falling on the body's strongest points - across the sternum and low on the hips - an adult lap and shoulder belt can ride up on a child's abdomen and across the neck.
The situation is made worse when a child tucks the shoulder belt under an arm to get a bit more comfortable. In the event of a crash, an ill-positioned adult belt can rupture internal organs and even cause what emergency-room personnel call "seat belt syndrome," in which pressure from the belt damages the spinal cord, in some cases causing permanent paralysis.
Your older child should be in a booster seat until he can sit with his back flush against the vehicle seat back, and his knees bend at the edge of the seat. That's usually about 8 years of age. Low-back boosters are fine, and kids perceive them as less "babyish." But they can't be used in a vehicle seat that does not have a high back or head restraint.
Mistake: Neglecting to install the car seat
Often, a mother and baby will be rolled out of the hospital in a wheelchair to go home, and the father is standing there with the car seat in a box. Rosen knows of one hospital that has trained all its health care providers on the maternity floor to install seats after seeing this too often.
"People don't want to think about car seats," she said. "They are boring. It's not sweet and lovely." She believes that buying a car seat should be the first thing parents do when they find out they are going to have a child.
If the family can afford it, they should first buy an infant-only seat first, and then a convertible seat when they get older, Rosen recommends.
"An infant-only seat provides a more snug fit for an infant," she says. "They are teeny tiny and it's hugely convenient taking the baby in and out of the carrier." However, a family can start with a convertible seat facing rear and then turn it around at the appropriate time.
Rosen is also the co-author of The Girlfriends' Guide to Baby Gear.