When you become a parent or a caregiver, it is likely the first time car seat safety even crosses your mind. And then all of a sudden there are so many options out there, and so much to learn…from what car seat works in your vehicle, to how to even begin to install it, and then how to travel with one, oh, and don’t forget the child growing so quickly and having to transition to new positions and different car seats. How does one even know where to begin with such a big topic, especially when it’s so essential for keeping our littles safe? Well, that’s where a Car Seat Safety Specialist (also known as, Child Passenger Safety Technician) comes in…and, I got you covered, thanks to Lindsay with Calgary Car Seat Cubs in Calgary, AB.

Hi Lindsay! I’m looking forward to sharing your guidance with others! Can you start by telling us a little about yourself, personally and professionally? 

I am a teacher by trade, but left my teaching career behind when I had my second child in 2015. I have four children: an 8-year-old son, a 5-year-old daughter, and 2.5-year-old twin boys. In between caring for my kids, I pursue my passion for teaching with my two businesses. I run a blog, Maman Loup’s Den, where I focus on eco-friendly parenting, where “eco” represents both ecological and economical. I teach parents about cloth diapering and other green parenting strategies, as well as advocate for maternal mental health and do product reviews, including car seats. As a Child Passenger Safety Technician (CPST), I also run Calgary Car Seat Cubs. I teach caregivers how to install and use their children’s car seats correctly to keep kids safe on the road. 

I know you’re based out of Calgary, so this is a very fitting topic for you. Many people were wondering about layers, and how to keep their little ones warm in the winter, knowing that it isn’t safe to be wearing bulky winter gear in their car seat. So, I have quite a few winter questions… 

Why is it unsafe to be wearing bulky winter gear in the car seat to begin with?  

Whether we’re talking about the adult seatbelt or a child’s 5-point harness in a car seat, both are designed to prevent our bodies from experiencing excessive movement in the event of a collision. Vehicle manufacturers often point out in their owner’s manuals that adult passengers shouldn’t wear overly bulky winter gear under their seatbelts, because this can prevent the seatbelt from properly restraining them. This is even more important for children, whose bodies are more fragile. In order to prevent the child’s body from moving excessively forward or upward with the force of a collision, or even being ejected from their car seat, their harness needs to fit as close to the body as possible. When a child is wearing a thick, puffy snowsuit under their harness, it is impossible to get the harness properly tightened. The force of the collision causes the puffy coat material under the harness to compress, creating a gap between the child and the harness. In the most extreme cases, this could lead to the child being ejected from their car seat. Overall we need to avoid bulky coats under the car seat harness so that there is no gap created between the child and their harness, that in the event of a collision, will cause their body to move excessively and lead to further (preventable) injury. A car seat and its properly adjusted harness are designed to protect a child in a collision. The harness cannot do its job if a bulky article of clothing is preventing it from being properly adjusted to the child’s body.

I have a great article here about winter coats and car seats.

What is the best way to dress baby for winter in their car seat? 

Dress your baby or child in close-fitting, warm layers that can fit easily under the car seat harness. Single-layer polar fleece is great, as are compressible insulated jackets, sometimes called “packable” jackets. If you can ball this kind of jacket up into a tiny ball by squishing all the air out, it’s likely a good choice. Put warm layers on top of the child once they’re correctly harnessed – this could be a car seat poncho, a blanket, or their winter coat on backwards. I have examples of how to dress kids for car seats in this blog post.  Here is a tutorial for a really easy and cheap car seat poncho.

There are a few brands now that have created jackets that are “safe in the car seat” – do you know anything about those and/or do you stand behind them?  

The ones I have seen work by unzipping a panel at the chest to reveal a thinner layer of jacket that the harness can pass over, without the bulk. When the child is not in the car seat, this layer can be zipped up again to keep them warm when playing outside. These jackets are often quite expensive, but they are an innovative solution for children in a 5-point harness. (They are not typically designed for use in booster seats.)

You can buy covers for car seats that don’t touch the baby – I’m assuming people are talking more about bucket seats with this question – are those safe? 

Car seat covers that go over the bucket seat, like a shower cap, are a great option for keeping baby warm to and from the vehicle. However, they should always be removed when the car seat is installed in the car. Firstly, sometimes the fabric from the cover can interfere with the mechanism that secures the bucket seat to its base. Secondly, there’s a risk of overheating or suffocation if you leave the cover on in the car. Simply pop it off before you drive away, and put it back on when exiting the vehicle.

When baby is in the seat, and someone does the “pinch test” for strap tightness, should that be done by the neck or by the chest area? Can you explain a bit about the pinch test? Or do you have another way to teach others how to gauge the tightness of the straps? 

The pinch test is done at the clavicle (collar bone) area. The rule is that you should not be able to pinch and hold a horizontal fold of slack at the collar bone. Make sure, before doing this, that you have pulled any excess slack out at the child’s hips.

This is the only correct way to check for strap tightness, and is explained and/or illustrated in every car seat manual. 

Here is a video I made explaining proper harnessing rear & forward-facing and one just for rear-facing.

Stepping away from winter, let’s talk a little bit about choosing a car seat – does the price of the car seat really indicate how good it is? There are so many options, where do you suggest people begin? 

I want people to consider that there is no perfect car seat; there is only a car seat that fits the family’s child, vehicle, and budget. Car seats are not a one-size-fits-all product. I suggest people start with this blog post where I outline, in great detail, all considerations to take when picking a car seat. Alternatively or in addition, parents should reach out to a CPST who can provide guidance tailored to their needs. 

Do you have a favourite infant bucket seat? Do you have a favourite convertible car seat? 

My favourite car seat is the one that meets the family’s needs. There is no single car seat that works in every single vehicle and with every child, so what my favourites are for my children and my vehicle doesn’t ultimately matter! Car seats are just one of those things where you can’t really take your friend’s recommendation based on what THEY like for their child and vehicle, unless your children are identical proportions and you drive the exact same vehicle.

What are your thoughts on a transition car seat, after the bucket? What are your thoughts on using a convertible car seat with an infant insert for newborns? 

You should transition a baby from their infant seat (bucket seat) when they have met one of the size limits. In other words, if they become too tall for the stated maximum of their seat, too heavy, or they no longer have the required amount of space between the top of their head and the top of their car seat. (This is usually 1”.) If the child has met any ONE of these maximums, they must move to a different seat. Beyond that, it’s a matter of parental preference. If baby is getting too heavy to lug around in their infant seat but they still fit it, then just leave their infant seat on its base in the vehicle rather than carrying it around with baby in it.

Using a convertible car seat from birth is doable, but ultimately can be a bit challenging. Many convertible car seats, despite what the box says, don’t accommodate newborns well, or are simply not a good fit for certain newborns. It’s impossible to predict the exact size of your baby at birth, and even harder to predict their proportions. Many convertible seats simply do not provide a safe fit for a newborn, especially with regards to harness height and head positioning, and it’s hard to know this prior to actually trying your unique baby in the seat. There are some seats on the market that experience has shown do better than others with newborns, but it’s important to also consider that a convertible seat installed with the appropriate recline for a newborn may be too large to fit in your vehicle. If a baby is born premature or low weight, it is likely the family will need to purchase an infant seat to leave the hospital.  I would recommend speaking with a CPST to decide if using a convertible from birth is right for you, and for some guidance in selecting the one most likely to work.

For infant car seats, what position should the handle be in while driving?  

Refer to your manual and the stickers on the side of your specific seat. Every brand of car seat has different requirements for the handle. Some require it up in carry position, some at the head of the seat, some at the foot, and some in a position somewhere in between. Always check your manual. 

This is a very important question, that I think people often don’t learn about. Can you explain why it isn’t safe for baby to sleep in their bucket seat outside of the car? 

Newborns are at risk for positional asphyxia, that is, not being able to breathe because they cannot lift their head up once it has fallen forward. That is why safe sleep for a newborn is on a flat surface, such as a crib or bassinet. (Infant seats are definitely not flat!)

Infant seats are designed to be installed at the correct angle in the vehicle to protect the child’s airway, but once out of the vehicle, the angle is often not maintained. Infant seats are not designed as sleep spaces outside the vehicle or compatible stroller. I consider them “supervised” sleep spaces, so, if your baby has fallen asleep in their car seat and you’re bringing them inside somewhere in their infant seat, the safest option is to transfer them to their crib or another flat sleeping surface. If this is not possible, then you need to supervise their sleep to make sure they are able to breathe correctly in their infant seat. Do not place the seat on an elevated surface and always leave the child correctly harnessed, even when not in the vehicle. 

How do you know when a new car seat is needed? 

When the child has outgrown their car seat by one of the stated maximums, they must move into a different seat that meets their needs. (The stated maximums will be standing height, weight and a requirement for the containment of their head within the seat, which is different depending on the car seat mode and the brand).

If a child’s car seat or booster is expired, it must be replaced.

If a car seat or booster has been in a collision (whether the child was in the seat or not), it typically needs to be replaced. Always contact the seat manufacturer to find out if you are unsure. Accident policies are also explained in owner’s manuals.

Once people have their car seat, they actually have to get it in their car – do you have any suggestions for how to make sure your car seat is installed properly? Which is safer – the anchors or the seatbelt?  

My best advice to install a car seat properly is to read the owner’s manual from front to back, then read it again. The majority of things that I correct or teach when I meet with parents are things that are in their vehicle owner’s manual and car seat manual. Yes, you need to check your vehicle owner’s manual before you install car seats. I have a whole post about it here!

The lower anchors (UAS) and seatbelt are equally safe provided you can get a secure install, which means the seat should not move more than an inch from side to side and front to back when you tug at the belt path. I recommend that parents choose the method that they find easiest AND that is compatible with the position they’ve chosen in their vehicle. Many centre positions, for example, do NOT have lower anchors. Lower anchors also have a weight limit, which is typically 65 lb, the combined weight of the child AND their car seat. The lower anchor child weight limit is stated in most vehicle owner’s manuals and car seat manuals, when in doubt, ask a CPST. If you have a heavy car seat, chances are it needs to be seatbelt-installed by the time the child weighs 40-45 lb.

Is there a preferred side of the car that the car seat should be on? Should the seat in front of the car seat be touching the car seat when it’s rear-facing? 

The best spot in the vehicle is the spot where the seat can be installed correctly and used correctly, every time. This depends a lot on how many children are on board, how tall the front passenger and driver are, parking circumstances, etc. I tend to put the youngest child on the passenger side so that they can be loaded and unloaded from the sidewalk when parked. In most circumstances we do not want a rear-facing car seat to contact the vehicle seatback in front of it. Many vehicle owner’s manuals will specify this, but as a general rule of thumb I want to make sure that when an adult passenger is seated in front, the seat back does not make contact with the rear facing car seat. If the only way a seat fits in a vehicle is with it making contact with the seatback in front, it’s time to contact both the vehicle and car seat manufacturers to make sure this is acceptable. Some car seat brands allow light touching (not bracing) of the car seat and the vehicle seat back, but only if the vehicle manufacturer also permits this. 

Can a car seat go in the middle seat? 

It depends on the vehicle. In most vehicles, yes, a car seat can be installed in the centre, but it will need to be installed with the vehicle seat belt as most centre positions do not have lower anchors. You need to consult your vehicle owner’s manual to find out if a car seat can be centre installed, and if so, by what methods.

People have a hard time knowing when to transition their baby/toddler/kid at each stage – can you please explain some of these? 

When do you transition baby out of the bucket? 

When they’ve maxed out their bucket seat either by height, weight, or head clearance, OR when the family wants to.

When do you transition to a convertible car seat? 

The convertible car seat is a seat that rear faces and then forward faces, so it is the next step after the bucket seat. 

When do you transition from rear-facing to forward-facing?

We want to keep a child rear-facing as long as possible. Current best practice is to keep the child in their convertible seat in rear-facing mode until they’ve outgrown this mode. For example, if your convertible car seat rear faces until 40 lb., 40” tall, and 1” of clearance above the head, then a child can stay rear-facing until they reach one of those maximums. Practically speaking, this can mean a child transitions to forward-facing somewhere between 2 to 5-years-old. I really don’t like seeing children under 2 forward facing as the load on their head and necks in a collision can lead to serious injury. Ideally I like to see parents transition to forward-facing somewhere between age 3 to 4-years-old if possible, depending on the seat, the family composition, and the child. 

When do you transition to a booster seat? 

A child must be a solid 40 lb. to use a booster seat. By this, I mean that they’re not just 40 lb., but they’ll be 38 lb. after a bout of the stomach flu. So, a solid 40 lb. would be, say, 43 lb. and up. Then, the child needs to be mature enough to maintain a proper seated position and belt fit for the entire ride, including when sleeping. No earlier than age 5, but most neurotypical children are mature enough for a booster between ages 5-7. Some children who are very light will need to wait longer! I like to refer people to this article by my colleagues to help decide if it’s time for a booster.

When do you transition out of a booster seat? Is a belt extender safe to use with a booster seat? 

When the adult seat belt fits the child correctly, they no longer need a booster seat. This is determined by the 5-step test. They need to be able to sit with their back fully against the vehicle seatback, their knees folding at the edge of the seat, their feet touching the floor, the lap belt sitting low across the hips (not on the belly) and the shoulder belt centred between the neck and shoulder. This is typically around 4’9” tall, and kids reach this height at different ages. Some kids are 9, some are 12, but regardless of age they need a safe belt fit to ride without a booster. You can read more about the need for a booster here. You cannot use seat belt extenders with boosters, this is prohibited by vehicle manufacturers and by booster manufacturers. Children 12 and under should always ride in the back seat, so basically, consider age 13 as the age when a child can ride in the front. We want them to have begun puberty to make sure their bones have ossified and can withstand the force of the airbag. The back seat is always safer.

If a child’s height and weight meet a requirement for switching, but their age does not, or vice versa, what do you recommend? 

It is almost impossible to use age to determine which car seat stage is the correct one, unless we are looking at legal requirements, or at the requirements for boosters.

Most provincial laws state that a child must be 1-year-old and 22 lb. to forward face, but frankly, children should not be forward-facing until after age 2, no matter what they weigh. If parents notice their child is close to outgrowing their rear-facing seat, but they want to keep the child rear-facing longer, they will need to choose a seat with greater rear-facing maximums. This is why talking to a CPST before buying is such a great step!

As for boosters, a child who meets the weight requirement, but is only 3-years-old, should not be in a booster seat, because they do not have the maturity required to maintain a safe seat belt fit. If a child has outgrown their forward-facing seat, but are not mature enough for a booster (no earlier than age 5, but that’s often too young for some kids), then they need a new forward-facing, harnessed seat that has higher limits.

What are some of the biggest car seat mistakes you notice? 

  • People don’t realize that not all car seats fit in all vehicles, and not all car seats work for all kids.
  • Folks do not read their car seat and vehicle manuals.
  • Improperly adjusted harnesses.
  • Using the lower anchors AND the seatbelt to install (this is allowed by only a couple brands in very specific circumstances).
  • Not tethering a forward-facing car seat (required for safety but also by Canadian law).
  • Using the wrong belt path (using the rear-facing belt path when a seat is installed forward-facing).
  • Adding third party accessories to seats (only use what comes with your seat!).

Is there anything else you want to discuss? 

Proper harnessing! Besides the pinch test, remember that rear-facing children need their harness AT or BELOW their shoulders and forward-facing children require their harness AT or ABOVE their shoulders. Here is a video I made explaining proper harnessing rear & forward-facing, and one just for rear-facing.

Where can people find you? 

I do in-person car seat checks in Calgary, and virtual checks for people anywhere in the country! If you aren’t in YYC and want to talk to someone in-person, check cpsac.org/findatech for a CPST near you. Also, my facebook, my instagram, my website, or email me at [email protected]

Lindsay, thank you so much for sharing your knowledge with us and teaching us how to keep our precious cargo safe while on the go!