Fit & Installation
Just as every child is a different shape and size, so are vehicles. Certain car seats fit better in some vehicles more than others. What fits your neighbor’s vehicle may not fit yours. This is why we don’t encourage using second-hand seats.
It’s important you select a car seat that will accommodate your child’s growth needs, fits tightly in your vehicle and is easy to use. See the “Car Seats & Boosters” section for help choosing a car seat. Below are tips on proper fit and installation of a car seat.
As children grow their restraint needs change, make sure your child’s seat fits them properly through every stage:
• Rear-facing seats for infants and toddlers up to age two
• Forward-facing seats for preschoolers
• Booster seats for children under 4 feet 9 inches tall
• Seat belts for older children
Properly installing your car seat in your vehicle:
• Installing a car seat using seat belt
• Installing a car seat using lower anchors and tethers: LATCH systems
• Testing the tightness of a car seat installation
• Common installation issues
All car seats with a harness:
- The harness should lie flat and be snug on the child.
- You should not be able to pinch any excess webbing.
- The harness clip should be positioned at armpit level.
- Do not add padding or put heavy clothing on the child, creating extra space between the harness and child.
Infants – Rear-facing Car Seats:
- Check the instructions/seat label for the minimum and maximum weight limits allowed. Premature or low-birth-weight infants may need a seat built for their smaller size.
- Children are five times safer riding rear facing until age two.* Most seats can be used rear facing beyond age one and 22 pounds.
- The harness straps must come through the slots at or below the child’s shoulders. If the straps are above baby’s shoulders when in the lowest slots, then that car seat is not appropriate for your child.
- Rear-facing car seats recline to prevent the baby’s head from falling forward and blocking their airway. Use the leveling device on the car seat if one is available—or a rolled towel—to assure the seat is properly reclined.
- Once infants outgrow a carrier-style car seat, they should use a rear-facing convertible seat. Keep your child rear-facing until they reach the convertible seat’s rear-facing upper weight/height limits.
- Do not move your child into a forward-facing seat until:
- she is a minimum of one-year old and, for maximum safety, is preferably two years old, and
- she has reached either the height or weight limit for the seat.
*”Getting the Message Right,” Pediatrics, March 2008, 121:619-620
Preschoolers – Forward-facing Car Seats:
- The harness must come through the slots at or above your child’s shoulders. The appropriate harness slot for a child can vary by manufacturer.
- You will probably need to make some adjustments for the harness to fit properly whether the seat is used or new.
- Convertible seats recline. Be sure it’s at the appropriate angle when used forward facing.
- Children should ride forward facing in a seat with a harness until:
- the child reaches the maximum height or weight limit for the seat, or
- the harness straps are no longer at or above the child's shoulders.
Children Under 4 Feet 9 Inches Tall – Booster Seats:
- Booster seats must ALWAYS be used with a lap and shoulder belt.
- A booster seat raises your child up so the adult lap and shoulder belt can be properly worn:
- across the center of the shoulder and chest—not rubbing the neck, and
- across the thighs—not over the abdomen.
- Never allow the child to move the shoulder part of the belt under their arm or behind their back.
- A child should use a booster seat until they outgrow it by height or weight.
- In Washington, vehicles with only lap belts are exempt from the requirement to use a booster seat for children weighing more than 40 pounds.
- When the child is not riding in their booster seat, make sure you buckle up the booster seat so it doesn't become a projectile in a crash.
- Use Twinkie® Physics to understand proper seat belt fit and how a misplaced seat belt can injure a child in a crash. Download, print and fold the card on the right which also includes the 5-Step Test below to help decide when the seat belt fits properly.
Older Children – Seat Belts:
If you can say YES to all five parts of the test below your child is ready to use a seat belt, which is usually around 8 years of age and 4 feet 9 inches tall:
- Does the child sit all the way back against the vehicle seat?
- Do the child’s knees bend comfortably at the edge of the vehicle seat without slouching?
- Does the lap belt stay on the top part of the child’s thighs, not over the abdomen?
- Is the shoulder belt centered on the chest and shoulder?
- Can the child stay seated this way for the whole trip?
If the answer is NO to any of these questions, or if your child puts the shoulder part of the seat belt under their arm or behind their back, your child still needs to use a booster seat.
Washington law requires children to ride in the back seat of the vehicle until their 13th birthday whenever it is practical to do so.
- Never place a rear-facing seat in front of an active front passenger airbag.
- Car seats must be installed on a vehicle seat that faces forward, not sideways or backwards.
The safest seating location is generally the center-rear seat, unless the child restraint is too wide for the location, or a pronounced hump or abutment compromises the fit of the child restraint.
To provide proper protection for your child a car seat with a harness must be held tightly into your vehicle with a seat belt or lower anchors.
If you cannot get a tight installation using the information in your owner's manuals and provided here, contact your local Child Passenger Safety Technician to schedule a car seat check-up where you can learn how to properly install your car seat.
Installing a car seat using a seat belt
Lap-only seat belts:
Many seat belts in the center-rear seating position work similarly to an airplane seat belt. When you buckle the seat belt and pull on the webbing tail the belt tightens and stays tight. This is called a lap-only belt with a locking latch plate. To install a car seat, feed the webbing through the appropriate seat belt path on the car seat, buckle and, while applying downward pressure on the car seat, pull the webbing tail to tighten.
Lap-shoulder belts work in one of three ways:
- Switchable retractor (most common): Slowly pull the lap-shoulder belt webbing out all the way. If when you retract the seat belt you hear a ratcheting sound (like a zipper) and the webbing is locked when you pull on it, you have a switchable seat belt. To install a car seat, feed the lap/shoulder belt through the proper belt path on the car seat and buckle. Pull the belt webbing all the way out to switch it into its locked mode. Apply downward pressure on the child restraint while steadily pulling the shoulder belt toward the retractor. NOTE: The seat belt will not hold the car seat in place unless you switch the seat belt into its locked mode.
- Locking latch plate: If, when you pull the lap-shoulder belt all the way out, it does not switch into a locked mode, then it’s likely the latch plate is what locks the seat belt. To install a car seat, feed the seat belt through the proper belt path on the car seat and buckle. Apply downward pressure on the child restraint while you pull the shoulder belt to tighten.
It’s not very common (Volvo, Saab, Chrysler, Jeep), but you may also have a seat belt that locks by switching a button on the back of the latch plate. In either situation, the latch plate is what locks the car seat in tight.
- Vehicles manufactured before 1996 may need a locking clip, which comes with your car seat, because neither the retractor nor latch plate lock to hold a car seat in tight. Refer to your owner's manual for installation instructions.
Installing a car seat using lower anchors
Lower Anchors Tethers for Children: LATCH is a method of securing child restraints into a vehicle using two lower anchors and a tether, without using a seat belt.
Lower anchors: required in most vehicles beginning with 2002 models.
Lower anchors are not more or less safe than installing a car seat with a seat belt. Proper fit and installation is the key to safety.
Regulations require 11 inches/280mm between the two lower anchors. Due to this requirement, many vehicles do not permit a center-rear installation using lower anchors. If this is the case and the child restraint fits the center-rear seating position, it should be installed with the seat belt.
Push to latch with a rigid bar: Clek, Baby Trend Latch-Loc
Push to latch with flexible webbing: Britax, Chicco, Peg Perego, some Evenflo
Hook on with flexible webbing: Dorel, Graco, some Evenflo
Lower anchors are available for retrofit in only a few vehicles (Audi, VW, Volvo), check with the vehicle manufacturer.
Tethering a forward-facing car seat is important because it reduces the forward movement of the car seat and child’s head during a crash.
Most vehicles with lower anchors also have a top tether anchor. Exemptions include sports cars and convertibles.
Tether anchors can be retrofitted in many older vehicles. Call the Safety Restraint Coalition 1-800-282-5587 to learn more.
Testing tightness of a car seat installation
- Check child restraint movement from side-to-side (in relation to the vehicle), not front to back.
- Use one hand placed at the seat belt path. Push and pull using only the force of a firm handshake.
- Up to one inch of side-to-side movement is acceptable.
- The car seat should be level and not tipped to one side.
Common installation issues:
The width of the child restraint must fit between the seat belt buckle and where the webbing comes out of the seat cushion. If the restraint is wider than the seating position, you will not be able to get a safe, tight fit. This frequently happens in the center-rear seat position.
With the driver’s seat positioned comfortably for the driver, a rear-facing car seat must be able to be installed in the back seat without the driver or front passenger seats pushing on the child restraint.
The seat belt webbing needs to be long enough to properly install the child restraint. Some smaller vehicles have difficulty accommodating large car seats due to the routing of the seat belt.
Some car seats that accommodate higher weight limits are significantly taller than regular seats and may not fit in smaller vehicles.