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Kids, Coats, and Carseats

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There are few things more adorable in this world than a small child dressed for winter. The vision of rosy cheeks, a red nose, knitted hat, and warm coat fit the image of an idyllic childhood winter spent playing in the snow. But while that big, puffy coat or snowsuit might protect your little one from winter's harsh cold, it can have quite the opposite effect when it comes to traveling in the car.

Every winter, consumer safety groups and news outlets remind parents of the dangers of buckling a child wearing a heavy winter coat into a car seat. It seems counterintuitive to put a child into the car without a coat, but experts recommend as few bulky layers as possible between a child and the car seat harness designed to keep them safe in a car.

Why?

The average puffy coat or snowsuit adds four inches of bulk to your child's frame when fitting the harness straps for a car seat... but that four inches of bulk can be compressed to virtually nothing in the event of a crash. Adult seat belts operate with tensioners that react to the force of a crash by retracting - infant and child car seats do not possess this type of mechanism and therefore will not hold a child securely in the seat once the coat or snowsuit is compressed. Even a low impact crash at 30MPH can have serious consequences for a child whose car seat straps are not properly secured. (For the record, bulky coats on adults in the car are similarly hazardous, regardless of the belt tensioning mechanism.)

How to Test Your Car Seat's Harness Fit

How do you know if your child's winter coat affects the safety of your car seat? A simple test can help you to determine if your child is buckled in safely.

  1. Dress your child in his coat and buckle him into the car seat, making sure the seat harness is tight against the coat.
  2. Take your child out of the car seat and remove the coat.
  3. Place your child back in the car seat without the coat, and rebuckle the harness.
  4. Check fit of harness straps. Ideally, you should not be able to pinch the strap between your thumb and forefinger at collarbone level. Additionally, the chest buckle should be at armpit height. If the harness straps are loose, the coat interferes with the proper fit of the seat harness and should not be worn while the child is traveling in the seat.

How Do I Keep My Child Warm in the Car?

There are ways to keep your child warm in the car that do not involve wearing a bulky coat. First and foremost, dress your child in thin, snug layers, just like you would yourself. A blanket tucked around an infant that is properly buckled into a car seat or infant carrier can provide the necessary warmth for travel. For older children, simply have them slip their arms through the sleeves of their coat and let the back of the coat rest against their chest; this will allow them free movement of their arms while also letting the coat do its job of keeping them warm.

When it comes to keeping your child safe in a car seat, remember that bulky coats, snowsuits, and aftermarket items designed to be used with a car seat can actually do more harm than good in the event of a crash. A car seat is designed to provide protection for its passenger under very specific circumstances; adding padding, layers, or any aftermarket products such as a head positioner can negate the car seat's manufacturer warranty.

The only exception is the accessories that come packaged with a car seat, for use with that specific seat. These items have been properly crash-tested by the manufacturer to exacting federal standards and have been designed for use with that particular seat. Adding anything else to your car seat - including those fun little toy bars - compromise the very safety of the child you seek to protect.

If you'd like to know more about the dangers of children wearing bulky coats in car seats, watch this recent report from NBC's Today Show. The dramatic footage of a simulated low-speed impact accident explains the danger in ways that words can't.

Our children are the most precious cargo we'll ever transport. Your kids might look adorable in their puffy coats, but when it comes to car seat safety, buckle them in without their coat on. A little momentary discomfort from the cold is worth their continued safety in the event of a crash!

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