Car Seat Basics

(Last Updated On: January 2, 2023)

Whether you’re a brand new parent or have a minivan full of Littles, it can never hurt to review the basics of car seat safety. Take a few moments to check all of these in regards to your child’s car seat – it might just save their life.

Is the correct belt path being used?

With convertible and multi mode seats the seat can be installed both rear and forward facing, which means there are two separate belt paths. Read the manual and look at the labels on the seat to ensure you are using the correct belt path for the direction of the seat.


harness height

Harness should be at or above for forward facing and at or below for rear facing

Are the straps at the correct height?

When using a 5 point harness, the straps should be positioned at or below the child’s shoulders for rear facing; at or above the child’s shoulders for forward facing.








Nuna RAVA 3 years old

The chest clip should be centered on the sternum


Is the chest clip positioned properly?

The chest clip is designed to keep the straps in position over the torso before a crash happens. It must be placed on child’s sternum, at his nipple or armpit level.






pinch test

Harness must always pass the pinch test


Are the straps tight enough?

Do the pinch test: pinch the straps vertically at the collar bone. If you can grab excess slack between your fingers and pinch it, the straps are too loose.






Checking for movement

Checking for movement

Is the seat installed tightly?

Your car seat should be installed so that there is less than 1″ movement side to side, and front to back when grasping at the belt path. That means where the seat belt or lower anchor connector strap feeds through the car seat. That is the only place you need to test for movement, not the top of the car seat.






Top Tether

Always use the top tether when forward facing

Is the tether attached?

When installing a forward facing harnessed car seat, always use a tether if one is available. The tether reduces forward movement for  the child’s head and neck up to 6″ in a crash; so reconfigure seats if necessary so all forward facing kids are in a vehicle seat with a tether anchor.






The Four Stages of Car Seat Safety

The Four Stages of Car Seat Safety

Is your child in the right stage for their age?

Kids should ride rear facing until a minimum of age 2, ideally 3-4 years old; forward facing in a 5 point harness until 5+ years old, and in a booster seat until 10-12 years old.








All seats have expiration dates anywhere from 4-12 years after they were manufactured

Have you checked the date?

Car seats expire anywhere from 4-12 years from the time they were manufactured. This time frame varies depending on the manufacturer, but plastics break down over time and an expired car seat may not protect your child adequately in a crash. Read more about car seat expiration here.








Nothing bulky should go under the harness, even in winter


Have you removed coats before buckling?

Bulky coats put extra space between the child and the harness which will compress immediately in a crash and mean more distance the child’s body moves before coming to a stop. Remove coats before buckling up, they can be worn backwards over the harness, or use blankets in the car instead. Read more about safe winter options for the car here. 






Many seats should be replaced after a crash, even a minor one

Have you been in a crash?

Chances are, even if the crash was minor, and even if the children were not in the car, the car seat(s) may need replacing. Check your car seat manual to determine the rules for your seat. You can find more information about accidents and replacing your seat(s) here. 







Reading the manual for your car seat is a very important step

Have you read the manual?

We know, we know. The manual is long, it’s boring, it’s full of warnings…. but we promise, this manual is one you must read. Your car seat’s manual holds the keys to making sure your child is as safe as they can be in your vehicle. It’s worth the read. If you have misplaced your manual, contact the car seat manufacturer for a replacement right away.




These are just a few important items to note when selecting and installing the correct seat and harnessing your child in that seat. CSFTL always recommends reading the car seat and vehicle manual prior to using any seat, and visiting a CPST in person whenever your child is moving to a new seat, a new vehicle, or the next stage.


Originally written by Emma Douglas. Edits maintained by CSFTL.