A newborn baby in a hospital crib

Childbirth is an exciting, wondrous event that brings new experiences. But because of the coronavirus pandemic, parents might not be receiving the training they need at the hospital on how to safely transport their precious cargo home. Social distancing guidelines also mean that it has been harder for some expectant parents to get assistance from trained technicians, who traditionally can help with an installation or confirm that a car seat has been properly secured in the vehicle

Hospital personnel and others interviewed by Consumer Reports underscore the importance of getting that first seat installed properly; they’ve witnessed challenges brought on by the pandemic. 

“We have lately been seeing newborns discharged much earlier than usual due to the current circumstances, and many of them (parents) coming in with no car seat education given,” says Ashley Varghese, a nationally certified pediatric nurse practitioner at Somerset Pediatric Group in New Jersey.

Varghese adds that she has observed first-time parents making key mistakes, such as not properly harnessing the newborn in a car seat carrier or putting the baby in a bulky jacket under the straps.

CAR SEAT RATINGS

Even the most well-meaning parents might have trouble getting the expert guidance they need because many car seat check stations across the country have been closed, says Jennifer Stockburger, director of operations at the Consumer Reports Auto Test Center and a certified child passenger safety technician (CPST).

“New parents have so many things going on and are taking precautions to limit their family exposure to COVID-19,” Stockburger says. “It is also well worth taking a pause and reviewing basic car seat guidelines.”

“We know how important the first ride home from the hospital is for a newborn and their family,” says Luis Rivera, director of Safe Kids Connecticut and a program specialist at the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center in Hartford. “Everyone who cares for the child wants them to be safe. We also know that if a caregiver makes sure that a child goes home from the hospital properly secured in a car seat, then that child is more likely to be safely secured for the rest of their life.”

Kristen Beckworth, manager of the Center for Childhood Injury Prevention at Texas Children’s Hospital, advises expectant parents to “be proactive; contact your delivery hospital to determine what resources are in place. If you need to install the seat prior to delivery, do not wait until the last minute as most technicians work based on scheduled appointment times, which can be limited.”

“No matter the type of educational experience, it is still important for new parents to learn how to properly use their car seat for safe transportation home from the hospital,” she says.

But not to worry. Consumer Reports’ car seat experts have compiled essential resources to equip new parents with the tools they need to bring home their bundle of joy.  

Buying a Car Seat

CR recommends choosing an infant car seat as your first seat. These are designed to be the first seat for a baby, and most can accommodate an infant up to 35 pounds. These have a detachable carrier that can be purchased online. Given that large online retailers such as Amazon are now focused on essential food and healthcare items, your best bet may be to order from a baby specialty retailer.

Some families may opt for a convertible car seat. These seats allow for a baby to be rear-facing initially and, when the baby has exceeded the rear-facing height or weight limit, can be turned forward-facing. It’s important to note that because these seats accommodate such a large range of children, they might not always be the best fit for tiny newborns and lack the convenience of the detachable carrier.  

Digital Owner’s Manual

CR always recommends keeping the car seat manual stored with your car seat. (Many seats have a special storage compartment for this purpose.) However, it’s also a good idea to bookmark or download the digital owner’s manual from the manufacturer’s website on your phone for easy access. 

Virtual Car Seat Appointments

The majority of car seats are not installed properly. The smart move: No matter how confident you may feel, assume you need professional guidance. Most drivers who transport children think their car or booster seat is installed correctly (73 percent), but nearly half (45 percent) of the installations are flawed in some way, according to the 2015 National Child Restraint Use Special Study, the latest government research available.

Many car seat inspection stations and CPSTs are now providing virtual services in place of physical checks. Using online platforms such as FaceTime, Skype, Webex, and Zoom, technicians are able to walk parents through installing a car seat in their own vehicle, as well as teach proper harnessing and adjustments.

You can find local CPSTs and car seat inspection stations through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or Safe Kids Worldwide. While most are not operational during the pandemic, they may be able to provide remote assistance.

“Babies come on their own schedule, so it’s important for parents to get that car seat ready well in advance,” Stockburger says. “Take the time now to learn how to properly use your car seat and have it installed and ready in the car for the big day.”

Many car seat manufacturers are also providing live video installation help. You can find it by contacting the manufacturer’s customer service or by checking its website. The Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association (JMPA) has a complete guide to contacting car seat companies.  

Key things to be aware of for rear-facing seats include: 

  • Recline right: Check the recline angle for rear-facing seats (most have an indicator) to avoid allowing the child’s head to fall forward and obstruct breathing while also balancing crash protection.
  • Harness height: Position the harness at or below the child’s shoulders to limit movement upward out of the shell during a crash.
  • Harness tight: You shouldn’t be able to pinch any fabric on the straps at the child’s shoulders.

“There are a number of installation videos available for new parents to watch and learn basic installation steps and harnessing tips,” Beckworth says. “There are many incorrect videos found when simply searching Google, YouTube, or other search engines. The manufacturer of your car seat is the best source for installation videos and instructions.”

Our CR experts also suggest a rear-facing car seat video from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia that covers important installation and harnessing tips, whether you are using an infant seat or a convertible car seat. Remember that when the seat is rear-facing, the harness straps should be at or below your child’s shoulders.

Learn more about avoiding common car seat installation mistakes.

Cleaning the Seat

Because of the coronavirus, you will want to clean your seat before you place your newborn in it. As you use the carrier, consider cleaning it periodically, especially after setting it down in public places.

It might be tempting to just grab any handy disinfectant wipe, but it is important that you avoid using bleach or other harsh chemicals on the seat because these can compromise the seat’s protection. The owner’s manual should have guidance on how to properly clean the seat and harness. Generally, using a clean cloth and mild or baby-specific detergent is best. And avoid using any soap products on the buckles or push-on LATCH connectors because they can impact performance. (Learn more about cleaning your car seat.)

Some car seat manufacturers have rain, or weather, shields that you may consider using to cover your infant seat as you travel through the hospital to your car to provide an added layer of protection.  

No Bulky Coats Under the Car Seat Harness

Bulky, or puffy, coats don’t belong underneath the car seat harness. These materials can compress during a crash and create additional room between your child and his or her harness. This can reduce the effectiveness of the car seat and increase the risk of injury. Instead, parents should dress their newborn in light layers, keep the harness snug (meaning you can’t pinch any harness fabric at baby’s shoulders), and place a blanket over the harness.  

Car Seats Are Not Sleepers

As tempting as it may be to let a sleeping baby lie, car seats are not intended for extended use outside of the vehicle. Move your sleeping baby as soon as possible to a flat, firm sleeping environment, such as a crib or bassinet.

Learn more infant seat do’s and don’ts.