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Beware: Winter Coats Can Keep Children from Fitting Safely in Car Seats

An arctic blast has sent temperatures plummeting in New Jersey and New York, as NJ.com reports. When it becomes frigid outside, parents may be tempted to outfit their children in puffy winter coats, scarves and hats. But for babies and young kids, beware – bulky coats can render car seats and booster seats ineffective, putting children at risk for serious injuries if a car accident occurs.

Car seat straps must be snugly fitted to a child’s body to provide proper protection in a collision. But thick coats can prevent kids from being restrained safely because the material flattens upon impact, and the harness will be too loose to keep them restrained. That means they are at risk for excursion or even ejection from a vehicle, according to Consumer Reports.

Is Your Child Snug Enough in a Car Seat? Try the Pinch Test

Experts emphasize the threat is serious even at slow speeds. Dr. Benjamin Hoffman, medical director of the Tom Sargent Safety Center at an Oregon children’s hospital, told the Today Show that at 30 mph, the force of impact on a 10-pound infant is equivalent to dropping a bowling ball out of a three-story window.

Fortunately, there is a simple way for parents to test whether their child’s coat is too bulky to be safe. It is called the pinch test. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Put the coat on your child and buckle him or her into the car seat or booster seat.
  2. Tighten the straps so you can no longer pinch any of the harness webbing between your thumb and forefinger.
  3. Without changing the harness, take your child out of the seat.
  4. Remove the coat and place your child back in the car seat.
  5. If you can now pinch the webbing between your thumb and forefinger, the coat is too puffy to wear.

For more information, check out this video on how to perform the pinch test on your child’s car seat harness.

Worried about keeping your child warm? Remember, he or she will only be without a thick coat during the time it takes you to reach your destination. Hoffman says there are still plenty of ways to keep kids toasty without a winter coat in the car, including:

  • Dressing them in a thin polar fleece jacket or sweater – but only as thick as something that could be comfortably worn inside.
  • After strapping them in the car seat, turn the jacket around and put it on backwards, pulling the child’s arms through the sleeves.
  • Bring an extra blanket in the car.
  • Buy a cold-weather car seat cover.

Don’t leave a snowsuit on kids, either. They are just as bulky and can create the same problem.

Car Seat Safety: Not Just a Cold Weather Concern

Studies have shown that 60 percent of caregivers fail to make car seat straps tight enough regardless of the weather. It is important to use the pinch test every time you fasten the harness in the car seat. The Mayo Clinic urges you to make sure you are not making other common child safety seat errors. The clinic suggests that you:

  • Never purchase a used car seat without first researching its history. You can check for recalls on the Consumer Product Safety Commission or manufacturer’s website. Do not buy a car seat that is more than six years old or expired, either. Verify that it has never been involved in a moderate or severe crash.
  • Install the car seat in the back seat, and as far away from an active airbag as possible. Place the car seat in the center of the rear seat, if possible, to provide more protection in an accident.
  • Read the car seat manufacturer’s instructions on installation, along with your vehicle manual’s section on car seats. This will help you to make sure that it is secured properly.
  • When restraining your baby in an infant seat, make sure the harness is fitted properly. Use the harness slots recommended in the car seat’s manual, which are usually at or below the child’s shoulders. Place the harness clips across the chest – not at the baby’s neck or stomach. Also, recline the seat to the proper angle recommended by the manufacturer so the child’s head cannot flop forward.
  • Don’t move to a forward-facing seat too soon. Pediatricians recommend waiting until the child’s second birthday or when he or she exceeds the height and weight limits for a rear-facing seat. You should only move to a booster seat when your child has exceeded the height and weight limits for a car seat. Once your child is in a booster seat, use both belts. The lap belt should fit on the child’s upper thighs snugly. The shoulder belt should cross the middle of the child’s shoulder and chest.