Like most parents, come cold-weather season, you’re focused on keeping your kiddos warm and toasty in the elements. Puffy warm coats are a staple if, like us, you live in a cold-weather winter climate. But, did you know that those same coats can render car seats unsafe, even ineffective? So, how do we keep our kids warm and safe in the car during the winter months? We’ve road tested some methods that will keep your kiddos toasty without compromising the effectiveness of your infant, convertible or booster seat.
Why Winter Coats and Car Seats are a Dangerous Combination
When moving to Wisconsin from Texas five years ago, a Texan friend asked how I was going to manage the winter when I couldn’t have my kids wear coats in their car seats. I laughed and replied that of course kids wear coasts in car seats! I mean, how else was I to keep the twins warm? Looking into the issue further, I learned that she was right. Car seat manufacturers across the board warn that wearing winter coats in car seats is dangerous. And here’s why.
Car seats are meant to fit tight against your vehicle’s seat; and children are to be secured tightly against the car seat. If either one, the car seat or the child, are not secure enough, the whole system’s safety is compromised. This is why car seats or infant carrier bases should not move more than one inch in either direction when secured in the car, and why the child’s harness should fit snuggly against his or her chest when strapped in.
Adding a bulky coat, snowsuit, baby bunting or blanket in between your child and the car seat prevents that snug fit. Sure, your kiddo may look nice and snug with his puffy coat squished against the car seat harness as it’s strapped down. But, in the event of a crash, the air in the coat will compress and cause too much slack in the harness. Just like when a child is strapped in loosely without a coat, the child will be thrust about in the car and even ejected from the car seat all together. In fact, EMT and emergency room workers tell stories of babies dressed in snowsuits or baby buntings, who were ejected out of their infant car seats because the bulk of the coverings created a situation that was no better than not being in a car seat at all.
Testing A Winter Coat
Try this demonstration for yourself. By following these quick and easy steps, you can see just how much slack is created in your child’s car seat harness by his or her coat.
1. Put the coat on your child, and strap him into his car seat as you normally would.
2. Unbuckle, but do not loosen the straps, and take your child out of the seat.
3. Take off your child’s coat, and place him back into the car seat. Buckle the straps, but do not alter them (in other words, do not loosen or tighten them).
4. Note how loose the straps are without the winter coat. If your child had that coat on in a crash, this is the amount of air that would be compressed and how loose the straps would actually be. You can see in the pictures we took, we could place a large toy block easily between the strap and Jax’s chest. This is a very dangerous situation.
As you probably know, when strapped properly in a car seat, chest buckles should always cross the breast bone and be in line with your child’s arm pits. You should not be able to pinch any excess strap between the chest buckle and your child’s shoulder after tightening the harness. Children who are not used to being secured tightly into their car seats may put of a fuss at first, but they will get used to it. Remember, if you can pinch excess strap, you child is not safe and may be no safer than not being in a seat at all if your vehicle is involved in a crash. (I can’t tell you how often I want to gently tell a stranger in the parking lot or comment on a Facebook picture that their child isn’t safe in their car seat. Securely strapping kids in their seats is such an easy thing to do and can literally save their lives!)
How to Keep Kids Warm in the Car Sans Coats
No After-Market Products. Any products, purchased or hand made, that were not sold by the car seat manufacturer and that fit between the child and the car seat (against their back or between them and the straps) are dangerous. Just like a big coat, they prevent that snug fit between the child and the seat. Many of these products claim to be safety tested. However, there are no federal standards in the U.S. for after-market car seat accessories. So we have no idea what kinds of “tests” they have passed. And using these products almost always voids your car seat warranty.
Use a Coat No Thicker Than a Fleece. Experts advise that kids should have no more than a sweater or fleece jacket on their top when strapped into a car seat. Heeding that advice, each of our three boys have a fleece zip-up jacket they wear when in the car. We find that winter coats that have a zip-out fleece lining work the best. Kids wear the fleece when in the car, and add the outer layer when exiting. Yes, it’s a bit of a pain putting on an infant’s or toddler’s outer layer before running into church or the grocery, but remind yourself that the extra 30-60 seconds is time well spent for a safe ride.
Children in Infant Seats
We love these two products to help keep kids safe and cozy when traveling in infant car seats.
RoSK Wobee Plush Blankets. These blankets tie right to the outside or handle of the car seat carrier, so baby can’t kick them off. Their plush interior is super soft, and the ties enable the blanket to be used on a stroller or baby carrier (Ergo and the like). As an extra bonus, use this as a play blanket, changing mat or nursing cover to get even more wear out of it. We like that it’s safe for car seat use, but we love that we can get so much more mileage out of it.
Infant Carrier Covers. Covers such as the JJ Cole Bundle Me or Cozy Cover fit directly over your infant carrier without interfering with the safety straps. These keep the warm in and the cold out. While their usefulness expires once your baby outgrows the infant car seat, it’s like having a build-in blanket for the months that they use it.
Children in Convertible Car Seats
RoSK Cold Weather Pouch Blankets. This is very similar to the Woobee plush blanket, except for a few additions. What we find useful when used with a car seat is the gathered “pouch” at the end of the blanket. Jax always takes his shoes and socks off in the car if he can access his feet. We use the pouch blanket because we can tuck his little feet right in the pouch, keeping them nice and cozy and inaccessible. We keep it permanently tied on one side of his car seat, and simply tie and untie the other side when taking him in and out.
Children in Harness/Booster Seats
Even kids who outgrow a convertible and are in high-back boosters (with or without a harness) or traditional booster seats should not wear winter coats when buckled in. (In fact, we adults are also safer without the bulk of a winter coat between us and the seat belt.)
Our 8-year old twins are in a harness booster (Britax Frontier) because harnesses are much safer than a standard seat belt. Harness seats are always safer than boosters, and boosters are always safer than no car seats. If you want to rid your car of the bulk of a convertible or high-back harness seat, only move your child to a booster if they are at least 40 lbs and/or their shoulders reach above the last set of harness-slots in the convertible/high-back seat. Keep your child in the booster until they are at least 8-years old. Many parents make the mistake of skipping the booster or using it for only a short period of time. Lots of kids under the age of 8 (and plenty kids under the age of 10) are too short for standard seat belts to secure them correctly. Unfortunately, many parents learn that this mistake is fatal. Don’t let convenience or your child’s desire to be a “big girl” lead to a decision you’ll regret.
Okay, back to keeping these big kids warm …
Snuggie. Yep, we actually found a good use for this “as seen on TV” product! We have two Snuggies sized for kids that the big boys slip on in their car seats. These blankets are warm, and they allow the boys to freely use their harms and hands for reading or playing games.
Wearing Coats Backwards. Another option is to simply have your kids slip their coats on backwards so the back of the coat serves as a blanket while their arms are in the sleeves. My kids find this pretty uncomfortable and confining, however. Thus, we opt for the Snuggie.
While it goes without saying that these options are not as convenient as simply wearing a coat in the car, we think that the extra time is well worth our kids’ safety. Nope, we’ve never been in an accident with our kids. Heck, I rode on the floor boards in my parents’ car and am alive to talk about it. But I have been in an accident where lives were lost and have heard parents’ stories who lost their young children in car collisions. Most accidents happen close to home and at slow speeds. Remember that an infant improperly restrained who is in a crash going only 30 MPH is thrown from the car at the same speed as a 10 lb bowling ball falling from a 3-story building. Our kids can’t make these safety decisions for themselves. They depend on us to make these wise choices for them.