Caregivers often ask us how they can protect their vehicle’s seats when a car seat is installed. It’s a valid question, especially coming from expectant parents who wonder what the car seat will do to a previously untouched vehicle interior, one that had been devoid of ground goldfish crackers and spilled beverages.
The short answer: At CSFTL, we don’t recommend using any product or item between the vehicle seat and the child restraint because as CPSTs, we often see them misused. Ultimately the decision is up to the parent.
The longer answer: Some specific car seats permit the use of specific seat protectors. While we don’t recommend using one, we have compiled a chart of manufacturers’ stances on the use of protectors.
Protect your Vehicle Seats
First and foremost, your car seat or booster’s manual has the final word on whether or not a seat protector is permitted underneath your child’s car seat.
The manufacturer may allow a towel, blanket, or their specific brand of seat protector underneath the seat. The manual may specify that nothing should be used under the car seat at all.
Why Seat Protectors can be Dangerous
A thick seat protector or mat between a child restraint (or booster) and vehicle seat introduces space between the two. If the seat protector shifts over time, that can loosen the car seat’s installation.
To help you decide if a seat protector is for you, we’ve done a little field testing on some of the more popular options.
- Thick fabric can compress in the force of a crash, mimicking a loose installation when that bulky fabric compresses under the weight of the seat and force of the collision.
- Seat protectors with grippy sides can grip the vehicle seat and make the child restraint seem tightly installed, but in reality it may not be.
- In the past, shelf liner was used to help with car seat installation but it’s no longer included in the CPST curriculum because it, too can mask a loose install. Shelf liner can also permanently damage your vehicle’s seats and has been known to melt onto them.
Generally speaking, a properly installed child restraint won’t damage your vehicle’s seats. The dents caused by car seats go away; usually rather quickly — a seat protector isn’t going to prevent that anyway. The best way to care for your leather seats and to keep the vehicle’s interior in good condition is to use proper cleaning products.
With three rowdy children in my Odyssey, I see a lot of mess and kid grime, so I definitely need to use something to keep my vehicle looking its best. About once a month, usually when I’m cleaning the child restraint covers and vacuuming my vehicle I use wipes meant for cleaning and conditioning leather vehicle seats.
Some manufacturers test their seat protectors and assert that they comply with Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS). This sounds convincing, but here’s the caveat:
There isn’t any mention of seat protectors in the FMVSS standard. There are no standards, regulations, or benchmarks for testing these products.
We don’t know how the seat protector was tested and how it performed, or what any of the testing really means for this type of product.
If a company says they’ve tested a seat protector and approves it for use with their car seats, we can trust that they’ve done their own testing and that it is safe to use with their products.
Testing a Seat Protector
Here’s how to see if a specific seat protector works under your child’s car seat:
- Make sure your seat protector is permitted by the car seat manufacturer.
- Follow the instructions in the car seat manual to install the child restraint over the seat protector. Verify that the car seat moves no more than 1 inch at the belt path side to side and front to back.
- Remove the seat protector. There are a few ways to do this:
- Slide the seat protector out from underneath the installed car seat
- Release the vehicle seat belt without loosening the vehicle seat belt
- Release one side of lower anchor connectors without loosening the lower anchor (LATCH) strap.
- Re-buckle the belt or attach the lower anchor strap.
- Test for movement. Does your child’s car seat or base now move more than 1 inch at the belt path? We find that in almost every instance, the car seat now moves more than an inch.
If the car seat tightness has to be adjusted when the seat protector is removed, it is too thick to use.
This test used a Graco SnugRide 30 infant car seat base. Graco allows the use of mats, towels, and blankets under their seats.
When I install the base, I check at the belt path to make sure that it isn’t moving more than 1 inch side to side or front to back. I’ve installed it using the lower anchors with ease, and I didn’t need to use any item under the base to achieve a good installation.
Check for movement here, at the belt path. All car seats will move at the back and top. As long as it isn’t moving more than 1 inch at the belt path, side to side or front to back, the install is secure.
Here, we have a thin receiving blanket under the base. The blanket is so thin that it is not adding any bulk under the base and it doesn’t interfere with the installation in any way.I can pull it out and test the installation, so I don’t have to unbuckle anything. When I tested this blanket, the base didn’t move more than 1 inch at the belt path before or after I removed the receiving blanket, so this is a safe option.
Here is a thin towel . I can also pull this towel out without uninstalling the car seat’s base.
The base does move a little more than when the towel was under it, but it does not move more than 1 inch at the belt path.
Less Secure Options
Here’s a towel that has been folded multiple times. It’s very bulky and squishy. I have to undo one of the lower anchor connectors, and when I remove the towel, the base moves much more than 1 inch at the belt path.
This bulky, folded towel isn’t a safe option because it could compress during a crash.
Next, I’ve used a seat protector under the base. It has two modes — one for infants and one for toddlers. Here, we’re using it in the infant mode. Note the warning on the tag.
The top part of the seat protector is folded, then placed between the base and the vehicle seat per the seat protector’s instructions.
The base can’t be directly next to the seat back because of this folded area. The seat protector claims that it allows access to the lower anchors.
However, this protector covers my lower anchors, and not only does that make it much more difficult to get them attached, I had to work much harder to get a secure installation.
Because of the cover placement, I was unable to remove the lower anchor strap without loosening it to test the tightness of the base without the seat protector.
Since I wasn’t able to complete the test, I don’t know if this scenario would have “passed.” Installation was just as difficult with the vehicle seat belt because of the placement of the seat protector.
The difficulty I had in installing and uninstalling the base with this particular seat protector is a clear example of “interfering with the installation.” The warning on the seat protector’s tag says not to use it if it interferes with the installation. Since it interfered, this seat protector isn’t a safe option.
The instructions for this very hard mat said to use the full mat and clip a strap at the top if I’ve got a vehicle seat with a headrest. I do, so I followed the instructions. According to the manufacturer, the hard shell design is meant to prevent vehicle seat compression. It has blue rubber gripper pads on both sides of the lower portion. There’s a note on the instruction guide and on the box about making sure to install your restraint as per the child restraint instructions and my base allows the use of something under it.
The lower anchors were easy to access, nothing was covering or obscuring them, so I chose to install using the lower anchors again. I could tighten the lower anchors so that the base moved less than an inch side to side, but because of the rigid mat, this was rather difficult.
This mat features non-slip pads which seemed to hold the base in place.
Removing one the of the lower anchors to get the mat out was difficult, but I was able to do so. Once I did, I found that the base could move several inches at the belt path which was very concerning. It was not properly installed at all. I am not sure the cause of so much slack was the grippy pads on both sides of the mat or the mat’s hardness, or both. I’m willing to bet that it was both.
Your results with a seat protector mat may be very different from mine, but many aren’t. If you have a seat protector that is approved for use with your specific child restraint and have tested it and found that it does not interfere with installation, you can certainly decide to continue using that item. Hopefully, now you have a better idea of which items you can use and how to make sure that what you’re using is safe.
Always follow the instructions for both your child restraint and seat protector mat, and make sure to read the manual(s) thoroughly. When in doubt, contact the manufacturer or a CPST with questions or concerns.
No child product manufacturer endorsed or sponsored this blog post. The opinions and views within are my own and do not represent any child product manufacturer. This blog post is meant to be informational only, and can in no way substitute for a seat check with a CPST, and is not meant to substitute information found in your child restraint or product manual.