Installing Baby Car Seats

Installing baby car seats correctly is essential to the success or failure of the seat protecting your child in the event of a collision.  It's estimated that as many as 7 out of 10 car seats are not installed correctly and improper installation may not only cause injury to your baby but it presents a hazard to anyone that is in the vehicle.

Motor vehicle accidents are the number one cause of death among children under 19 years of age.  It's also concerning that of all children under 12 years of age who died in an accident, approximately 30 percent were not restrained in a car seat, booster seat or seat belt. 

installing baby car seats

Since every vehicle is unique and not all car seats are built the same you need to learn about your vehicle by reading the manual and inspecting your seats.  You will need to determine where the anchor straps are located as you will either be using the latch straps or the seat belt to secure your baby's car seat. 

The latch anchors are mandatory for any vehicle manufactured after 2002 and are located at the crease of the seat cushion and back. The tether anchor is often found hanging from the ceiling of the vehicle.  

If you would like to learn more information about the LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) system in the United States you can read more about Isofix which includes the UAS (Universal Anchorage System) or Canfix in Canada. 

It's important to always read the car seat manufacturers instruction manual as well as your vehicles user manual before you attempt installing the seat. 

Installing Baby Car Seats Step by Step

After reading your vehicle manuals section on car seats and the manufacturers instruction manual you should have a good idea about installing baby car seats.  If you follow along our step by step guide you should feel comfortable knowing you are helping to ensure the safety of your loved one in the event of a collision.

  1. Car Seat Location
  2. Car Seat Fitting
  3. Securing the Car Seat
  4. Harnessing your Child
  5. Tips and Advice

1.  Location in Your Vehicle

The ideal place to locate your car seat is in the middle of the back seat or in the second or third row of a minivan.  The purpose of this location is to avoid airbags that can potentially be dangerous for your baby while in a car seat.  If your vehicle has side impact airbags it's important to avoid them or ensure that the seat is not in range during air bag deployment. 

It is against the law and very dangerous to use a rear-facing car seat on the front passenger seat unless the airbag has been deactivated.  It's recommended that you don't use a car seat on the front passenger seat.  

2.  Fitting and Proper Angle

The two main positions for installing baby car seats are rear-facing and forward-facing.  The weight and subsequent age of your child is the main factor that determines how you should install your car seat as well as the car seat itself.  

Rear-Facing Car Seats

car seat installation aidDiono Car Seat Installation Aid

You should use the rear-facing position for the best baby car safety until your child is at least 20 lbs, but it's recommended to keep your seat rear-facing until the maximum allowable weight for your car seat is reached.  It's the safest position to have your baby in so it makes sense to leave it that way as long as possible, as per the manufacturer. 

When installing baby car seats that are rear-facing the angle of your baby should be as close to 45 degrees as possible.  The base of the seat should be as level as possible and may require a cushion, towel or other car seat installation aid to achieve a level base and the correct angle. 

Newer car seats have a recline angle indicator in the form of a bubble level, dial, sticker or engraving on the car seat. 

Forward-Facing Car Seats

Installing baby car seats that are forward-facing should only be done when your baby is at least 20 lbs or has exceeded the maximum allowable limit for your car seat in that position.  The main difference from rear-facing is that instead of 45 degrees you want to have an angle of 30 degrees.  

The 5-point harness found on forward-facing car seats provides support for your childs shoulders, hips and crotch.  This position and harness should be used until your child is around 5 years old or has outgrown the seat as per the seats limitations. 

3.  Securing the Car Seat

All newborns have weak necks and bones that are still developing so it's important to ensure that your baby is strapped in snugly.  In addition, making sure the seat is held tightly to your vehicle will provide the best protection for your baby in the event of an accident.  

Securing and harnessing your baby varies slightly for forward-facing and rear-facing seats so it's important to read your car seat instructions as well as your vehicle's manual.  In a rear-facing seat the angle is most important and in a forward-facing seat the tether strap is the most important, which we will discuss below. 

There are three ways to attach your car seat and you should choose the option that keeps the seat secured the tightest.  You should not have more than one inch of wiggle room when you try to move the seat.  It's a good idea to put your own body weight on the car seat while tightening the straps or belts to ensure the tightest possible fit. 

LATCH (United States) and UAS (Canada) System

The Lower Anchor and Tethers for Children (LATCH) or Universal Anchorage System (UAS) are designed specifically for installing baby car seats.  If you refer to your vehicle owner's manual they will show you the location and how to properly use them to secure both front and forward-facing car seats. 

The LATCH or UAS system is installed in all vehicles manufactured after 2002 and the symbol should be found where the connectors are located.  The connectors will be made of sturdy metal and are attached to the frame of the vehicle for maximum safety.  As of 2014 the guidelines state that once the combined weight of your baby and the car seat reaches 65 lbs you must use the seat belt system. 

latch or uas symbolLATCH or UAS Symbol

Seat Belt System

The seat belt system should be used if it provides a tighter and more secure fit than the LATCH or UAS system or if your child and seats combined weight exceeds 65 lbs.  The seat belt should only be used if it has a built-in locking feature and will be noted in your vehicle's users manual.  You can also check it by pulling the seat belt all the way out, slowly releasing it and listening for a clicking sound that will indicate the locking device. 

It's important to always use the tether strap when installing baby car seats in the forward-facing position.  A tether strap is designed to hold the top end of the car seat securely in the event of a collision. 

Seat Belt and Locking Clip

If your seat belt system does not have a locking feature you will need to incorporate a locking clip.  If your vehicle was manufactured prior to 1996 you may have to take the time to learn how to do this correctly, as a locking clip that is installed improperly will be putting your child at risk. 

If you want more information please watch a video on how to install a locking clip presented by the National Child Passenger Safety Board. 

locking clip

4.  Harnessing your Child

Strapping your baby in safely is the final step to installing baby car seats and will ensure that you are providing the safest conditions for your child in the event of an accident.  Remember to refer to your car seats recommendations in the manual as it can vary with different car seats. 

The harness should be checked every time you place your baby in the car seat.  As your child grows you will need to adjust the straps to ensure maximum safety.  A few things that you need to ensure are:

  • Make sure that there is adequate space between the top of your child's head and the top of the car seat. 
  • The straps should be snug and you should only be able to put one finger between the harness and your baby.
  • The chest clip should be level with your child's armpit and closed tightly until it snaps into place.
  • There should be no space between the top of your child's shoulders and the strap where it runs back into the car seat.  Most car seats have multiple inserts so you can adjust them as your baby grows. 
  • The straps should not be twisted or folded and should run flat against your child. 
  • Test the straps every time by giving a light tub to ensure they are securely fastened.

If you are unsure about any aspect of installing baby car seats contact your local authority on child transportation safety.  In the United States you can visit a child safety inspection station in your area and in Canada you can contact your local motor vehicle or insurance office. 

The National Highway Traffic Safety Commission or NHTSA in the United States or Transport Canada are great resources for more information. 

5.  Installing Baby Car Seats Tips and Advice

A few important tips that could save your child's life and help give you peace of mind when travelling with your loved ones. 

  • Always ensure that your child is snug with their back and bottom tightly against the back of the car seat especially when wearing bulky clothing
  • You shouldn't have blankets, toys or other items in the car seat
  • Always register your car seat or complete the warranty so you will be notified of recalls
  • The canopy and handle of the car seat should be positioned in accordance with the manufacturers guidelines

Installing baby car seats properly is one of the most important things you can do for your child.  The guidelines on this page is for information purposes only and If you have any questions or concerns contact your local authority on transportation safety. 

BHS Home PageBaby Car Safety