Stealth-Adjusting a Car Seat: Right or Wrong?
I have a rule for myself, when it comes to the things I feel I know something about. That rule is: I don't give advice unless I'm asked. If someone asks me for help with breastfeeding, I'll jump in with both feet and tell them everything I know. If they don't ask for help or advice, I keep my mouth shut. If someone asks for help with their car seats, I'll throw at them everything I know. If they don't ask, I won't say anything, even if I can see how poorly their kids are buckled. I tend to assume my friends are intelligent, know when to ask for help, and want what's best for their kids. I also tend to assume that most people don't want me butting in and telling them they're doing something wrong unless they ask my opinion. Sometimes I can't hold myself back even with this internal rule, but most of the time I refrain from saying anything in the interests of maintaining cordial relations.
A few weeks ago, I started to watch a friend buckle his young baby into her car seat. I turned away quickly, having a hunch that he would not buckle her well. I said to my husband, "I think I'd better not watch, because it will just make me angry." I couldn't help sneaking a peak after he finished, and, well, I was right. There were just so many things done improperly that I couldn't bear to look. There was something like a Snuzzler behind her. While I hear good things about Snuzzlers from parents who have used them, I was fairly certain that a car seat tech would tell you not to use one. A quick Google search later on confirmed for me that Child Safety Passenger Technicians say that no aftermarket products should be used with your car seat, including Snuzzlers, Bundle-mes, etc., that go between the baby and the seat, because they may interfere with the harness or the padding of the seat itself. Reserving my judgment about that, the baby was also wrapped in a receiving blanket, which he did not remove before buckling her. This meant that the crotch strap was not snugly between her legs because the blanket interfered with the straps. Finally, and most troubling, the straps were quite loose and the chest clip was in the middle of her belly. For a moment when no one was tending her - she was asleep in the seat - I stealthily approached the seat, fixed the chest clip, and tightened the straps as much as I dared. I didn't want to wake her or draw attention to myself.
I mentioned to my husband and a friend that I had done this. There were a few arguments made for and against what I'd done. (No one argued that she shouldn't be buckled properly or that she had been buckled just fine before I changed it.) One point made was that if I didn't say something to the parents about it, then they wouldn't know for the future. On the other hand, they may not, in their sleep deprived, agitated state, want someone to criticize them (as they would see it), so saying something to them might mean straining our friendship, which I value. I said that at least for this one trip, she would be buckled correctly. And maybe since I'd tightened the straps, they wouldn't loosen them again, and they'd be properly tight the next time they put her in the seat (unlikely, but you never know). Finally, my friend suggested that we could bring up the issue of how to buckle a car seat in a general way around them in the future so that they could hear the instructions without feeling like they were targeted, which would be the best way. I muttered, have jokingly, "Doesn't she [the mother] read my blog?", which I don't think she does. (If she did, would I be wrong to post this story here? Would she know it was about her? Probably. That's a whole other topic!) I do feel that many people think they are doing it right until they are shown how it should look. It's not that they are intentionally buckling their seats wrong. It's just that they don't realize that they're not doing it right.
Now, there are plenty of people who say, "If someone would just show me, I'd be happy knowing that my child was safe." There are also plenty of people who don't want anyone to interfere with their parenting choices, which include whether they want to learn to correctly buckle a car seat. Hey, to each his own. I'm sure I put my kids into plenty of situations that would make other parents want to inform me about how unsafe it is.
Still, car accidents are a leading cause of injury and death for children. Children correctly restrained in cars are at significantly reduced risk of injury and death in a car accident. Sure, my kid might get hurt falling out of a tree at the park, but he's more likely to be injured or killed in a car accident driving to or from the park. Should he not learn to climb safely because of the risk of falling? He can't "learn" to ride in a car safely. He doesn't have control over that. He's either safe in the car, or he isn't. Drowning is the leading cause of death for children one to four years of age. Should I not let my kid in the pool because of this? No. I should teach him to swim and make sure that when he is around water, he is supervised, and that the pool has a fence so he can't accidentally wander in. Again, this is a risk that can be reduced through teaching him to swim. I can't teach him to not get in a car accident, especially since he's not even the one driving. The only way to reduce his risk of injury in the car is to make sure he is in a proper restraint and buckled correctly. The only way. And, of course, for me to drive safely. And, yes, there's an element of luck and trust in G-d, too. I don't deny that.
So, was I wrong to adjust my friend's baby's car seat? I wouldn't say I was morally wrong. They probably didn't even notice, and, if they did, they probably wouldn't know who had done it. And, it doesn't mean they'll do it correctly next time. But when you see something wrong that you can fix, the urge to fix it is sometimes so strong that you can't let it go.
On the other hand, another friend who was there that day asked me to look at her sons' car seats and make sure all was well. And since I was asked, I gave her my opinion, made an adjustment, and pointed out a problem. I also answered questions she had about weight and height for her older son in his Graco Nautilus, and about her rear-facing 16-month-old's feet being against the back of the seat. I told her, "Legs bend; necks break." Kids like crossing their legs in the car or propping them up on the seat rather than having them dangle. Rear-facing is more comfortable. Plus, that recline! It's like an easy chair.
And, for your further edification:
My middle son, in his car seat carrier, about 5 months old, buckled correctly. No aftermarket products behind or around him, (except the toys on the handle, which should be removed when the car seat is in a moving vehicle, which it's not in this picture). The head support and shoulder strap covers came with the car seat, so they are perfectly fine to use.
My middle son, front-facing in his Graco Nautilus, about two years old. Straps tightened properly, chest clip at armpit level. Again, the shoulder strap padding came with the car seat and so are fine to use.
Things that are permissible:
- Putting a blanket over the child after he is buckled. A blanket will fall away in an accident and not interfere with the functioning of the car seat.
- Putting rolled up receiving blankets around the child's head or body for support after the child is buckled securely. Again, blankets will fall away from the child in an accident, allowing the car seat to do its job.
- Using any accessories that come in the box with the car seat, such as additional padding, head support, and shoulder strap padding. Check the car seat's manual for age or weight limits on using the additional padding. For example, my Chicco KeyFit30 has newborn support padding that can only be used until the baby is 11 pounds, after which it should be removed.
- Using any accessories sold separately by the car seat manufacturer that they specifically state are acceptable for use with your exact car seat. This means it has been tested using that accessory. For example, Diono sells an angle adjuster that can go under the car seat to change the recline angle of the car seat. When used properly, according to Diono's instructions, with a Diono seat, this would be a permissible accessory.
- Using an aftermarket accessory that your car seat's manufacturer specifically states is acceptable to use with your car seat. For example, some manufacturers state that putting a thin towel between the car seat and the vehicle's seat is permissible to protect your upholstery. Please check with your car seat's manufacturer to find out if this is acceptable to do with your car seat.
If you have other questions, please consult with a CPST (Child Passenger Safety Technician). CPST's are trained in proper car seat installation and use and must keep up to date on new research and new seats, as well as being aware of vehicle compatibility issues. You can often have a consultation for free through your fire or police department, a local hospital, or a baby supply store. Check SafeKids.org to find a inspection station near you.
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