We asked NJ if he remembered accidentally unbuckling GI's seat belt. He said he did. I said, "You have to tell me if that happens so I can reinstall it! It's very dangerous if the seat belt isn't buckled!" He didn't remember when it had happened. Really, I wasn't interested in punishing him or seeing him get in trouble. I just wanted to know how long I'd been nonchalantly driving all over town, assuming GI was safely buckled in a well-installed car seat! How terrifying!
In reality, I couldn't budge the car seat anyway, with the way it was wedged between SB's and NJ's seats. Naturally, a crash force is much stronger than my tired right arm, but at least it wasn't just sliding around all over the place. I also had connected the rear-facing top tether, so the car seat wasn't completely loose. But the most important bit of installation was completely undone. I reinstalled the car seat as best I could with the baby in it, sitting in a gas station at 10:30 at night, with GI's seat wedged up against SB's and NJ waiting with Daddy while the gas finished pumping. I did a terrible job, and I knew I needed to redo it ASAP. (The lesson here is, check your car seats' installations on a regular basis and re-tighten/reinstall as necessary.)
So, Monday morning, I said to NJ that since I had to reinstall GI's car seat anyway, we may as well try to rearrange the seats the way I'd kept meaning to all summer. I really, really wanted NJ in the center position, rather than the outboard passenger side, and I really, really wanted GI behind the passenger rather than in the middle. I have three major reasons for this: 1) When my husband is driving, he has to move the driver's seat back far enough that it butts up against GI's (admittedly massive) car seat back, and that's not ideal. Behind the passenger seat, his car seat wouldn't be interfered with that way; 2) It's better for the least-protected child to be in the safest, center position, and since NJ is just in a booster, GI is rear-facing, and SB is front facing in a 5-point harness, NJ claims the title of "least protected child;" and 3) The middle position doesn't have LATCH connectors in my car, so GI's seat was installed with the seat belt (which caused the above problem). I was never happy with the installation - it never felt quite firm, and I would much rather be using LATCH if I could. The seat belt anchor in the center position in my car is on a three-inch long stalk, and it was difficult to tighten the seat belt to prevent the car seat from twisting to the left if you pushed on it. Even after consulting with a car seat technician, I couldn't get it installed to my satisfaction. If I put GI outboard, I could use the LATCH to install the seat, and this problem would no longer exist, since NJ would use the seat belt in the middle position, and the tightness issue wouldn't apply.*
Plus, NJ is the only one who can get in totally on his own, so him being in the middle is more convenient. Plus, GI is getting heavy, and I was less and less enamored of lifting him over into the middle seat, and that was only going to get harder as he gets taller and heavier. So having him in an outside position would be easier on me, too.
The reason the seats weren't already like this is that with his booster seat wedged between two car seats, NJ couldn't access the buckle for his seat belt! However, fortunately, I had stumbled upon this extremely handy tip, which NJ was more than willing to try: Leave the seat belt buckled and have the child climb in and out of the buckled seat belt. So, I reinstalled SB's seat (behind the driver's seat), which I had un-LATCHed thinking I might move it then changed my mind, put NJ's booster in the middle and buckled the seat belt, then installed GI's seat rear-facing behind the passenger. I was extremely happy to be able to use LATCH to get a nice, tight install for GI's car seat, finally. We spent a few minutes in the driveway having NJ practice climbing in and out of his seat without unbuckling the seat belt. He got very quick at it. We then went for a short outing, and he was into his booster before I finished buckling GI. Yay!
For those interested in this trick: Pull out the shoulder belt so you can loosen the lap belt. Have the child sit in the booster and pull the lap belt over his legs and settle it on his hips. Then have him put the shoulder belt in the proper position and pull the belt tight across his lap. To get out, reverse the process: Loosen the shoulder belt, put the shoulder belt behind him, loosen the lap belt, have him pull his legs out from under it, and get out of the seat. This gives you the added bonus of knowing that the booster seat is always buckled in, even when there isn't a child in it, which is the safest thing to do so that the booster doesn't become a projectile in the event of a crash when there isn't a child in it.
Here's NJ climbing into and out of his booster:
I have two new problems, which I hope are offset by the benefits. One is that NJ now does not have access to a cupholder. He had been using the one on the door. Minor, but may come up on a long trip. The other is that SB and NJ are now practically touching while in the car, which might mean a lot of bickering and "he pinched me," and "he pulled my arm" and all the other nonsense. We shall see...
* Installing a car seat with LATCH or seat belt is equally safe if done correctly. Do not use both simultaneously. Make sure, if using the seat belt, that the seat belt is LOCKED so it can't loosen in a crash. (In most cars, you pull the seat belt out all the way, then let it retract. This will trigger the automatic-locking retractor.) If using LATCH, check if your vehicle and/or car seat has an upper weight limit for use of the LATCH system. Use the seat belt if your child exceeds this limit.