Let's Talk About Car Seats: Proper Buckling Edition

I realized this week that it’s been 2 months since I completed my courses and became a child passenger safety technician (CPST) and I really haven’t done much with what I learned. Mostly this is because I am bohemethly pregnant, which makes it tougher than you’d think to install car seats. But I realized that being giant shouldn’t stop me from sharing the things I’ve learned that can help keep kids safe.

I frequently see pictures of kids on Facebook, twitter and Instagram who are in their car seats, smiling their hearts out, and all I can think is how terribly injured they would be in an accident. I know this isn’t because their parents don’t care about them, quite the opposite, they’re in a car seat in the back seat because their parents care, but somewhere along the line, the proper buckling/safety got lost or missed. And those kids, and thousands of others, are at risk for serious injury in an otherwise survivable car collision.

So today I want to talk about how to properly buckle a child into a 5 point harness, including some common mistakes and why we need to be careful about not making those.

This is Eli, he’s 2 years and 1 month old and he rides rear facing 100% of the time and will until he outgrows the limits of his car seat. We can talk about that another time, but he’s clearly not unhappy about it. In fact, he cried when I took him out of the car. I’m not even kidding. It might have been more because he had to put his pacifiers away, but still. He loves his seat and rides happily in it.

properly restrained 1

Here he is properly restrained. His harness is snug enough, the chest clip is positioned properly, the straps are on the right setting and his seat is properly installed (another post for another day). This is how he rides 100% of the time, regardless of whether he’s put in the car by mom or dad. We take the time to do this every single time. Even when we’re running late, which is 100% of the time.

properly restrained 2

Now, let’s look at some common errors and how to correct them.


1. Chest clip placement. This is probably the most frequent error and is a big one. I know it probably doesn’t seem that critical, but the chest clip plays a huge role in keeping your child safe in a collision. The chest clip keeps the straps properly positioned on the shoulders. In the event of a collision, if the chest clip is too low, the straps can slide off the child’s shoulders and the child can be ejected from the vehicle. Also, if it’s positioned over the belly, it may cause abdominal injuries in a crash.

chest clip

How do you know it’s in the right place? The chest clip belongs at armpit level (or nipple level, same difference). It should not be anywhere near the belly at any time.


2. Loose straps. I get how this one happens. We don’t want our kids to be uncomfortable, so we make sure the harness isn’t too tight. But in doing so, we are putting our kids at serious risk. If the harness is too loose in a rear facing seat, the child will “ride up” the seat and can be ejected. If the harness is too loose in a forward facing seat, the child will have significantly more movement forward, which could cause them to collide with the front seat, injuring arms, legs, brains and spines.

loose straps

So how do you know if the straps are tight enough? The pinch test. The pinch test is the best measure to make sure the straps are tight enough. Once you’ve tightened the harness, attempt to pinch the webbing (horizontally) at the collar bone. You may need to remove or unvelcro shoulder pads to do this, but doing it at the belly is not valid. If you cannot pinch any of the harness, it is properly tightened. If you can pinch the harness, it needs to be tighter.

Here, I can pinch the harness, so the harness is too loose.
pinch test 2

Here, when I try to pinch, I can’t grasp any of the harness webbing between my fingers, so the harness is tight enough.
pinch test 1


3. Aftermarket products on the seat. As you can see, I did this. I did it for a full year before I knew better (we can also discuss how the straps are too loose, I too made almost all these mistakes before I knew better). I thought that Eli would be more comfortable with these strap covers on and I clipped his pacifier to his harness. Why are these things wrong? Well, for starters, any object that isn’t crash tested with your car seat shouldn’t be used. Your seat was intended to work a specific way and there’s no way to know if adding something is going to be dangerous. For strap covers, the issues are that they can make the straps slippery and cause them to slide off your child’s shoulders, or, in a crash the fabric can compress (much like if you put your child in a puffy coat) and cause the harness to be too loose in the moment you need it to be tight. The pacifier should never have been clipped there because it could damage the harness and reduce it’s ability to perform correctly in a crash.


So, how can you protect the neck from strap marks? You can call your car seat manufacturer and see if there are any strap covers that they can send that have been crash tested with their seat, and many companies have these available. If that doesn’t work, you can put your child in polo shirts, you can pull their shirts up under the straps, or you can just live with it. It’s not a perfect answer, but when used properly, the harness shouldn’t damage the skin.


4. Combination loose straps and low chest clip. This is the worst. I don’t mean for this to come across meanly, but if this is how your child is buckled into a car seat, you really shouldn’t even bother putting them in a car seat. This will provide absolutely zero protection in even a mild crash. The child will be ejected at least from the seat, if not from the car, and very likely severely injured.

loose and clip

This actually happened to an infant in my area recently. The car accident was entirely survivable, but the child was ejected because she was in a seat with the chest clip at belly level and the straps too loose. It is an absolute tragedy and that’s why I’m telling you this. We all get told repeatedly by doctors and family members how to feed our kids, what the safest products are, but no one takes the time to teach parents about car seats. Car crashes kill thousands of kids each year and studies have found that more than two-thirds of car seats are used incorrectly. We need to take the time to correct our mistakes and change our ways so that we can keep our kids safe.


It takes less than a minute for me to get Eli properly strapped into his seat. I know when we’re in a rush it feels like every second counts, but safety should never be rushed. Taking those extra 30 seconds to adjust the chest clip and check the tightness are absolutely critical. I am not exaggerating at all when I say that it can literally be the difference between life and death for a child. Please take the time, pay attention and now that you know better, make the conscious decision to do better.



  1. Thank you for this! About a year ago a reader told me my kids’ chest clips were too low, and she was so sweet and apologized for intruding and didn’t want me to be mad at her for telling me what to do, but all I could say was THANK YOU because this stuff is so important. So THANK YOU to you too! :)

  2. I have a few questions, which you may or may not know the answer to…

    1) So, the toys that attach to the carrying bar… are those bad to have? I know that the carseat says to push the bar back, but I see a lot of parents don’t do that, and that’s a hazard right?

    2) The inserts you can buy for infants, are those bad to have or okay?

    1. @Becca,
      1. Every infant seat has a different set of allowable positions for the handle while in the car, so you have to check your manual. For example, our snugride said any of the locked positions were fine. The upright position (if allowed) can actually provide some protection from the roof in a rollover. As for the toys, your manual probably says no, we used a soft toy that wouldn’t damage the seat or Eli in a crash. The rule I live by is if I wouldn’t throw it at Eli’s face, it’s not allowed to be near him (or unsecured) in the car. I will admit that as he’s gotten older we’ve broken this more and more with his toys, but that is the ideal toy safety guideline because in a crash the stuff in the car travels at high speeds and can be dangerous.

      2. It depends. I believe that Britax and Diono both have inserts that they made and crash tested with their seats. If it was made by your car seat company and specifically says it was crash tested with your car seat, it’s fine. If you’re having a hard time with keeping baby upright in a carrier, try buckling them in then putting one tightly rolled receiving blanket on either side of baby. It’s safe (doesn’t go between baby and the harness) and is great for positioning.

  3. Hi!

    Thank you so much for reviewing these tips. The neighborhood kids call me
    “Crazy Safety Mommy” bc I check their straps, etc, so I appreciate you having my back :-)

    My question at this point is for my 7 and 9 year olds, and I am really hoping you can help as no one seems to have the “right” info for me.

    I was under the impression that in NY/NJ where I live, the law for boosters was 8years old and 80 pounds. I have kept my 9 year old (4’6″, 53lbs) in a high backed booster using the car seatbelts, as she does not weigh what I believe she should to be without a booster. My 7 year old (4’6″, 83lbs) is also in a high backed booster (I bought the Graco Nautilus for both girls bc it goes up to 100lbs) because she is not the right age to be without a booster. In my husband’s car, they both use a regular no back booster, and I get very nervous that it’s not enough and that it slides.

    SO: Am I going overboard with the highback booster? Are they safe in the backless booster? Does my 9 year old still need a booster? Does my 7 year old? I am kind of a nervous wreck about this stuff bc no two people have given me the same answer to these questions even before the girls were in the boosters.

    Thank you for reading all the way through my nervous note!

    1. Hi Jodi. Totally reasonable questions and yay for big kids in boosters!

      So, in terms of high back v. backless, if your kids can sit up straight 100% of the time, even when asleep, and with a good shoulder belt placement they are fine in a low back booster. The headwings on a high back are good and they might restrain the head somewhat in a crash, but we don’t really have solid evidence of that. So as long as they sit properly and the belt fit is good (sits flat against the middle third of the collar bone, lap belt rests on tops of thighs not belly) and they have a head rest that goes to at least the top of their ears, a backless booster is totally fine. A high back is great too, so you don’t need to switch if they’re within the limits, but a backless isn’t a step down safety wise when used properly.

      As for being finished with a booster altogether, it’s not really about weight or necessarily age (though I would not kick a kid out of a booster before age 8 unless they are the world’s most mature giant), it’s about height and maturity. There’s something call the 5 step test that we use to move kids out of boosters. Kids are ready to sit in a seat belt when they can:
      1. Sit with the back against the seat
      2. With the knees bent at the edge of the seat
      3. With the lap belt going across the thighs, NOT the abdomen
      4. With the shoulder belt flat between the shoulder and neck
      5. And can sit this way the entire trip, awake or asleep.

      Note that some kids can 5 step out of a booster in some cars, but in other cars, the belt fit is poor and they may need a booster. Most kids really need a booster until around age 10 or 11. Eli is likely to be in a booster until he’s 20 at the rate he’s growing.

      I hope this helps somewhat, please feel free to let me know if you need further clarification!

      (And before someone replies to this comment and says that as an adult they can’t pass the 5 step test and therefore it’s ridiculous to keep big kids in boosters, let me just remind you that anatomically, physiologically and biomechanically adults and kids are different. Our bodies can withstand crash forces that children cannot. Our spines are stronger, our heads are proportionally not as big and so on and so forth. Also, if you can’t pass the 5 step test and can still fit into a booster per the manufacturer’s requirements, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to use one. Just saying.)

      1. I simply can’t thank you enough for taking the time to explain all of this so thoroughly. Finally, actual answers! I actually feel such relief now having a set of standards/facts on which I will rely. Thank you thank you!

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