I want to talk specifically about newborns in car seats. Often demonstrations are given using older babies or toddlers, but most of us first use car seats with newborns, and it's helpful to know some specific rules pertaining to newborns that may not apply to older babies.
A newborn may sit in an infant "bucket-style" car seat or in a rear-facing convertible car seat. The same rules apply in either type of seat. These rules really apply to any rear-facing baby or toddler, with some additional detail given for the specific case of a newborn. (For "newborn," I mean a baby from birth to approximately three months of age.)
So what are the rules for newborns in car seats?
1. The shoulder harness straps must be adjusted AT or BELOW the baby's shoulders.
This means that if the straps are above your baby's shoulders on their lowest setting, then the seat is too big for your newborn. Many seats come with additional newborn support padding. If your seat comes with this additional padding, you may need to use it both for your baby's comfort and to bring him up to the level of the lowest shoulder harness slots. DO NOT USE ANY AFTERMARKET PADDING with your car seat. The general rule is, if it didn't come in the box with your car seat, you shouldn't put it on your car seat. (This also applies to head supports and shoulder strap padding!)
If you do use the support padding that comes with your car seat, check your user's manual for the upper weight limit for this padding, and remove it when your baby reaches that weight limit. A heavier baby will compress the padding in the event of an accident, which may mean that the harness is not tight enough, potentially causing your baby injury or even causing him to be ejected from his seat.
2. The chest clip must be fastened and lined up with his armpits or nipples.
I've talked about the chest clip before. At length. If your car seat has a chest clip, use it properly.
3. Did I mention? Don't use any aftermarket products on your seat.
Don't use any padding, supports, add-ons, or accessories that didn't come in the box with your car seat. This includes the ever-popular Bundle-Me, head supports, shoulder strap padding, and body support pillows. These (a) interfere with the harness, meaning you may not be able to adjust, buckle, or tighten it properly; and (b) are not crash-tested with your seat, meaning you don't know how safely your car seat will perform in a crash if you are using one of these products.
4. Make sure your car seat is installed at a 45 degree angle.
Newborns don't have enough head control to sit at a more vertical angle. If the seat is not reclined properly, his heavy head can fall forward onto his chest, obstructing his airway.
5. It's okay for the head to fall to one side or the other, but not forward.
If your baby looks uncomfortable because his head is tilted far to one side or the other, especially if he falls asleep in the car seat, you may put a rolled up receiving blanket on either side of his head to offer additional support. You should put the blankets in after he is buckled in properly. They should not be attached to the car seat in any way, and they should not go between the baby and the car seat.
6. Don't be afraid to tighten the harness!
The harness should be tight enough to pass the "pinch test." The pinch test is when you attempt to gather the strap between your thumb and forefinger at the baby's shoulder. If your fingers slide off the strap, then it is tight enough. If you can pinch and hold the strap material between your thumb and forefinger, the harness is too loose.
One tip: After you buckle the harness, tug on the straps around the baby's tummy to pull the slack out of the hip area, then tighten.
7. If your baby is cold, put blankets on over the harness.
You should not put too many layers of clothing on your baby when he is in his car seat. Bulky clothing will prevent the harness from being properly tightened. If your baby is cold, buckle him into his seat in one or two layers of clothing and then put blankets or a jacket over the baby. You can tuck a blanket around the baby tightly to help keep him calm if he usually likes to be swaddled, but you should not put a blanket between the baby and the harness or behind the baby.
My friend was generous enough to allow me to film her newborn, at about seven weeks old, being buckled into his car seat. Please watch and share this video, and subscribe to the Jessica on Babies YouTube channel!
Note: Unless it states otherwise in your car seat manual, the handle of the car seat may be in any position when the seat is in the car, as long as it is locked in that position.
Answers to "What's Wrong with This Picture?"
1. Harness is not tight enough - you can see how loose it is around his right shoulder. Too much slack in the hip area. Chest clip is too low - if the slack were pulled out of the straps and the harness properly tightened, you could see that the clip is not at his armpits. It's hard to see anything else from the angle of the photo. The head support came with the car seat, but it is probably both unnecessary and useless.
2. Harness is not tight enough - you can see the slack at his chest area. Chest clip is too low. All of the additional padding - shoulder pads, head support, and body support - came with the car seat and are acceptable to use. Because the car seat was not in the car in this picture, I can only assume I made the corrections before we went anywhere. :)
And, finally, in this picture, baby SB is buckled nice and securely, harness properly tightened, chest clip properly positioned. He is in one layer of clothing and is kept warm by placing a blanket over the harness.