Installing Your Carseat
Before attempting to install any carseat, read both the carseat instructions and the child restraint section in the vehicle instructions. These guides will tell you basic information that you need to know in order to properly install a carseat. If you can't find the instructions for your new carseat, try looking on the back of the seat, on the bottom, or under the cover for the booklet. You can order a new instruction manual for free from the carseat manufacturer and most manufacturers now have manuals online in .pdf format. If you can't find your vehicle instruction manual, order a new one from the dealer parts department or from eBay. There will be a charge for your vehicle manual.
Quick Installation Tips
- Read your vehicle manual's section on child restraints.
- Check the label on your vehicle's seat belt to learn how to lock it.
- For a rear-facing convertible seat, recline it first before trying to install it. Thread the vehicle's seat belt through the correct belt path on the carseat and buckle it. Then lock the seat belt in place.
- Light bouncing or rocking from side to side on the carseat will help you achieve a tighter fit.
- If your vehicle seat reclines, recline it and install the carseat as tightly as possible. Then put the vehicle seat back upright for a tight installation.
- Get the seat belt as tight as you can, then unbuckle it. Holding onto the seat belt tightly, let it retract 1/2" to 1" and rebuckle.
- Use the carseat for leverage. Lay across the seat and rotate your weight toward the buckle as you insert the latchplate into the buckle.
- If the latchplate (male end) is at an odd angle as it goes into the carseat belt path, it is acceptable to twist the seat belt buckle (female end) up to 3 complete turns. With each twist, however, you are losing strength and integrity in the seat belt, so it is recommended to twist just until you can get the latchplate to lie flat.
- If your lap-only belt won't stay tight, you can flip the latchplate upside down and then buckle it.
- Grasp the seat belt as close to the latchplate as you can to pull it tight.
- Put one hand on the edge of the carseat closest to the buckle. With the other hand, grasp the seat belt as close to the latchplate as you comfortably can and pull tight.
LATCH: Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children
Typically when people talk about LATCH, they mean the lower LATCH anchors. Be certain that you understand the carseat manufacturer's instructions on using LATCH and read your vehicle's instruction manual very carefully. Some vehicle makes have had lower LATCH anchors in the back seat since 2001 but lower LATCH anchors weren't made mandatory until model year 2003 for passenger vehicles weighing less than 8500 lbs. Top tether anchors have been in in passenger vehicles since 2000. If a top tether anchor is available, use it with a forward-facing carseat, even when using a seat belt to install the carseat. The vehicle's manual will state specifically if LATCH is available; look under the child restraint section. All carseats (belt positioning booster seats, car beds and vests are exempted) manufactured after September 1, 2002, must be LATCH-compatible, though they may still use the vehicle's seat belt to be installed in non-LATCH vehicles. For more information on LATCH, see the FAQ. If your vehicle isn't equipped with LATCH, continuing reading through the sections on installing carseats below that apply to your situation.
- Follow the manufacturer's instructions
- Use the appropriate LATCH belt paths; i.e., use the rear-facing LATCH belt path for a rear-facing installation and the forward-facing LATCH belt path for a forward-facing installation
- Read your vehicle's instruction manual carefully to determine where you may install the carseat. LATCH may not be available in the center.
- Snap the hooks down firmly onto the vehicle's LATCH anchors and verify they are correctly connected
- Pull the belt(s) tight so that the carseat moves less than 1" when you tug on it at the belt path
- Press down or put weight on the seat as you pull the belt tight
- Pull the LATCH strap end back through the belt path to get slack out more easily
- Seats with rigid LATCH connectors, instead of the more common belt with hooks, adjust as you push them tighter into the vehicle seat
- For a forward-facing carseat, attach the carseat's top tether to the tether anchor directly behind the carseat and pull it tight
Common Misuses of LATCH
- Using LATCH in the center position of the back seat. Unless your vehicle's manual states specifically that you can use the center position of the back seat for LATCH, you cannot install a carseat using the LATCH attachments. Use the vehicle's seat belt instead.
- Using both LATCH and the vehicle's seat belts to install the carseat. Use either LATCH or the vehicle's seat belts, not both.
- LATCH connectors installed upside down
- Not tightening LATCH strap or using top tether when seat is forward-facing
- Not following manufacturer instructions. If your vehicle's manual doesn't mention LATCH (ISOFIX), you don't have it and can't use it. You may, however, have a top tether anchor for use with the carseat's top tether when the carseat is forward-facing.
- Using LATCH attachments to secure a booster seat. Some combination seats, seats with harnesses that convert to a booster, can only use LATCH when used with the harness. Read the carseat owner's manual when converting the seat to use as a booster.
- Using the tether anchors behind the back seat as LATCH attachments. The locations of LATCH anchors generally are marked on the vehicle seat. The vehicle's manual will also state the location of LATCH anchors.
- Using a locking clip while using the LATCH belt
When to Use
Infant seats: from 22-40 lbs. (you *must* read manual or look for sticker on side of seat to find weight limit for *your* seat) and 28-35" (read manual or look for sticker on side of seat; OK to use until baby's head reaches to 1” of top of the plastic part of the seat—press the cover down to feel for the structure of the seat)
Convertible seats: all up to 35 lbs. and most are higher (read manual or look for sticker on side of seat); buy one that goes to 40 lbs. or higher
How To Install:
- Read the instruction manuals for both the vehicle your installing the carseat in and the carseat.
- Put seat into place in the vehicle. The middle of the back seat is best, but you may not get the best fit there. It's better to have a great fit in an outboard position than to have a mediocre fit in the middle position. NEVER place a rear-facing seat in the front seat if there is a passenger-side air bag.
- Thread the seat belt latchplate (male end) through the path marked for rear-facing seats (assuming convertible seat; infant seats have only one belt path) and connect it to the buckle (female end). The belt path is marked with stickers, but if it isn't, is it usually either under the child's thighs or over the child's thighs on a rear-facing carseat.
- Check the recline angle of the carseat. Newborns and young babies should ride at a 45 degree angle. Older babies and toddlers can ride more upright.
- Use the harness slots at or below the child's shoulders.
- Make sure the harness is snug.
- Have your installation double-checked by a certified child passenger safety technician.
Lap-only belt/LATCH installation: Putting weight on the seat with your knee or hand, pull the tail of the lap belt/LATCH belt as tight as you can back through the belt path. Never use a locking clip with a lap-only belt!
Lap/shoulder belt installation: This is a more complicated installation. Some seat belts lock at the retractor (pull the seat belt out all the way—you'll hear a ratcheting sound and won't be able to pull out any slack), so a locking clip isn't required; however, more often than not, locking a seat belt by locking the retractor may cause a rear-facing carseat to tip because the shoulder belt will pull up on it. Putting weight on the seat with your knee or hand, pull the shoulder portion of the belt as tightly as you can. It may take more than one person to get it really tight. Finessing the installation helps keep the carseat from tipping and tipping occurs less on convertibles than on infant seats. It's definitely easier to reinstall a carseat by locking the retractor when the seat becomes too tipped over time than it is to finagle a locking clip onto a seat belt, though the clip is always an option. If the carseat has a lockoff, use the lockoff to avoid locking the seat belt AND using a locking clip.
Does It Fit?
From the side of the seat, grasp the seat at the belt path. Tug and push once or twice. If the seat moves, but it's less than one inch (1"), you have an acceptable fit. If it moves more than one inch, try re-installing the seat again. If it still moves more than one inch, try installing the seat in a different back seat position or take the seat back to the store and buy a different one. A lot of stores will let you try carseats out before you buy one.
Press down at the top of the carseat. Does it squish down into the vehicle seat? Try sitting or standing on the seat to compress the cushion and re-tighten the vehicle's seat belts. The carseat should not be able to press down into the vehicle's seat very much and the seat should return to its previous position.
It is acceptable for the top of the carseat to flip toward the back seat. This is called rebounding and rear-facing carseats do this (it's also known as "cocooning"). If you have a Britax convertible seat, a Diono (Sunshine Kids) Radian convertible seat, or a Combi Coccoro convertible seat, you may tether these seats to a structural, non-moving part of your vehicle while they are rear-facing. Click here for more information on tethering a Britax seat. This will eliminate that movement toward the back seat if you tether them to the front seat track, for instance.
It is generally OK if the carseat touches the front seat; check the vehicle owner’s manual. Some vehicles with advanced airbags prohibit carseats from touching the front seats. Check your vehicle manual, especially the warning sections, regarding the carseat resting on the front seats. Look in the airbag, child restraint, and seatbelt sections. Evenflo prohibits their infant seats from touching the front seat backs and requires 1.5” between any seat part and the front seats.
Watch rear-facing seats being installed!
Forward-Facing SeatsWhen to Use
Convertible seats: after a minimum two years of age AND 30 lbs. until child reaches the upper weight limit of the harness (most convertibles now have maximum weight limits higher than 50 lbs.) or when tops of ears reach the top of the plastic part of the seat (press down on the cover to feel for the actual structure of the seat) or when shoulders are above the top harness slots.
*Some convertible seats are also high-back boosters that reach higher weight limits. It can be confusing to have one of these seats because the marketing materials say that the seats go from 5-100 lbs.; however, the harness is rated only to 40, 50, or 65 lbs., depending on the model. Read your carseat's manual for the harness section or look at the stickers on the side or back of the seat that say "harness."
Forward-facing only seats: after a minimum of 2 years of age AND generally 22-65 lbs. (exception: some higher weight harness seats have upper weight limits of more than 65 lbs.; read labels)
How To Install:
Use the same installation methods as for rear-facing seats, with some modifications.
- Read the instruction manual to determine which harness slots to use.
- Place the carseat so that the base is flat on the vehicle seat and the back of the carseat is flush against the back cushion. If a head restraint pushes the carseat forward, raise it or remove it, if possible. If the head restraint isn't removable, move the carseat to a different position in the back seat or find a different carseat more compatible with your vehicle.
- Use the forward-facing only belt path on the carseat. This belt path is marked with stickers and is generally located on the back of the seat (it is never under the child's thighs for a forward-facing carseat). If you are using LATCH, be sure to read the carseat manual for instructions on how to move the LATCH connectors to the forward-facing belt path.
- All seats come with forward-facing tethers that can be attached to a vehicle's tether anchor. Always use a tether, whether you're installing with a seat belt or LATCH. Tethers can reduce forward head excursion by up to 6"! Take a yardstick out to your car and measure from the back seat to the front seat and you will see how valuable 6" can be. Your vehicle's tether anchors may be marked with this symbol.
- Make sure the harness is snug.
- Have your installation and use of the carseat double-checked by a certified child passenger safety technician.
If your vehicle doesn't have tether anchors, read the vehicle's manual to see if it can be retrofitted. Many vehicles made since 1989, and some earlier ones, can be retrofitted (because tethers have been required in Canada for many years). Many dealers will install a tether anchor for free (GM dealers are required to install one tether anchor for free in MY '89-'99 vehicles per service bulletin 99-09-40-004, January 2000). You can also install a tether anchor easily by yourself. **Be sure to use only the vehicle manufacturer's tether anchor bolt!** Using a generic tether anchor bolt could possibly strip out your anchor point, making it useless. Call your vehicle's manufacturer for more information or you can email me for a part number. If you own a MY 1998-2000 Toyota Sienna, click here to see instructions for installing tether anchors. To attach a tether, find the vehicle manufacturer approved anchor and connect the tether strap to it. Pull the tether strap snug and tuck the excess belt behind the carseat.
Does It Fit?
Grasp the seat at the belt path. Tug and push once or twice. If the seat moves, but it's less than one inch (1”), you have an acceptable fit. If it moves more than one inch, try re-installing the seat again. If it still moves more than one inch, take the seat back to the store and buy a different one. A lot of stores will let you try carseats out before you buy one. Again, grasp the seat at the belt path. Pull away from the vehicle's seat back. If the seat doesn't move, congratulations! That is an excellent fit. If the seat moves, but it's less than one inch, you have an acceptable fit. If it moves more than one inch, try re-installing the seat again. If it still moves more than one inch, take the seat back to the store and buy a different one.
Movement at the top of the seat away from the vehicle's seat back or side to side is NOT OK. Use a tether if you can. It will help stop this movement.
Watch a forward-facing convertible seat being installed!
Combination Seats/BoostersWhen to Use
Can be used from about 20-80 lbs.; belt positioning boosters have higher minimum weights. A combination seat has a 5-point harness that can be used to 40 lbs. or higher, then converts to a belt positioning booster by removing the harness. Many parents graduate their kids to combos when they meet the minimum height and weight requirements for the seat, but they are compromising safety and comfort in doing so. Remember that a child under age 1 must remain in a rear-facing seat and rear-facing past age 2 is safest, if the child still fits in the seat rear-facing. If your child has outgrown his infant seat, look at a convertible seat instead of a combo seat. Convertibles have better side head protection than boosters and that also gives the child more support when sleeping in the car. Use a forward-facing convertible until the child's ears reach the top of the seat (plastic shell), the weight limit is reached, or the shoulders are above the top harness slot. It is a tough decision in some circumstances and a call to a certified child passenger safety technician may be valuable.
Some belt positioning boosters can be attached to the vehicle using LATCH. This bring up the question of lower anchor weight limits since belt positioning booster seats are used for kids who are heavier than the weight limits given by vehicle manufacturers for their lower LATCH anchors. The answer is easy: the LATCH is only holding the booster in place during normal use while the seat belt is holding the child in a crash. So the only weight being placed on the lower anchors is that of the booster seat itself. Follow the installation instructions of the booster when using LATCH: some require a loose installation, others require a snug installation.
Boosters should be used until the vehicle's seat belts can fit the child comfortably when s/he sits normally in the car. A child can use the vehicle's seat belt without a booster when:
- the child's knees easily bend over the seat cushion
- the child's bum is firmly against the back cushion
- the seat belt fits low over the hips (if it sits higher, serious abdominal injuries may occur in a crash)
- the shoulder portion of the belt comes across the chest without cutting into the neck
- the child can stay like this the entire ride
Children usually meet this 5-step criteria around 9-11 years of age and 80 lbs.How To Install:
When using the combo seat with a harness, use the same installation methods as for forward-facing seats. Since all harness slot positions on a combo seat are reinforced, you may use any slots above the child's shoulders.
Belt positioning boosters should fit the shape of the vehicle seat so that the booster sits flat. You may use a backless booster if your vehicle has adequate head rests for whiplash protection. Your child may find a high-back booster to be more comfortable for sleeping in, however. Be sure to buckle the booster when your child is not using it; it can be a projectile in a crash.
If you have lap-only seat belts in your back seat and your child is over 40 lbs., please see the list of Higher Weight Harness seats available to you. These seats are also good choices if you choose to have your child harnessed over 40 lbs.
Don't forget to have your installation and use of the carseat or the fit of the child in the booster seat double-checked by a certified child passenger safety technician.
Does It Fit?
When using the harness on the seat: Grasp the seat at the belt path. Tug and push once or twice. If the seat moves, but it's less than one inch (1”), you have an acceptable fit. If it moves more than one inch, try re-installing the seat again. If it still moves more than one inch, take the seat back to the store and buy a different one. A lot of stores will let you try carseats out before you buy one.
Again, grasp the seat at the belt path. Pull away from the vehicle's seat back. If the seat doesn't move, congratulations! That is an excellent fit. If the seat moves, but it's less than one inch, you have an acceptable fit. If it moves more than one inch, try re-installing the seat again. If it still moves more than one inch, take the seat back to the store and buy a different one.
Movement at the top of the seat away from the vehicle's seat back is NOT OK. Use a tether if you can when the combo seat is used with the harness only. It will help stop this movement.
When using a booster seat: don't forget to have the seat buckled in when your child isn't using it. It can become a projectile in a crash.
When to Use
Use a locking clip only with a combination lap/shoulder belt.
The locking clip is designed to keep the lap portion of the lap/shoulder belt tight in a collision. A locking clip should NEVER be used with a lap-only belt. Please go here for a much more thorough explanation of when and how to use a locking clip.
Old Seats/Used Seats/Crashed Seats
If a seat was manufactured 10 or more years ago, destroy it and throw it out. Manufacturers place an expiration date on carseats because plastic does go bad. Check for a label or stamp on the seat for the expiration date or read the owner’s manual for guidelines. If you bought a used carseat, evaluate very carefully if you want to continue to use it. It is recommended not to use a pre-owned seat if you do not know the history of the carseat or how it was treated and stored. Ask yourself this question: “Do I trust the person from whom I bought this seat with my child's life?” Also, you will find an excellent checklist at CPSafety.com.
If you have been in a collision, consider replacing the seat. NHTSA has developed a list of guidelines regarding replacing seats after a crash: NHTSA policy on child restraint re-use. If you are unsure if the seat is safe to use, replace the seat. The insurance company of the person at fault should pay for the new seat.
If you have an old or damaged seat, throw it out. Remove and cut up the harness. Damage the seat as much as you can with a sledgehammer or saw and throw it away in a trash bag so no one can see what it is.