It is a challenge for many parents to properly install a child car seat. One common installation problem is improperly attaching and tightening the top-tether anchor. Parents can improve their child's safety by correctly completing this simple step when installing forward-facing car seats. 

Consumer Reports’ own car-seat crash testing shows that top-tether use can significantly reduce the forward movement of a child in a frontal crash, thereby reducing a child’s risk for injury, especially to the head.

In addition, a recent study suggests that top-tether use can help mitigate the adverse effects of other installation mistakes, such as a loose harness or a loose seat installation, according to the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. Other studies have repeatedly shown that the vast majority of car seats are improperly installed. (Learn how to avoid common car-seat installation mistakes.)  

Parents use the top tether only about half the time, despite its high safety value, according to the most recent estimates by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Reasons for not using the top-tether include parents simply not being aware of it, not knowing how to use it, and not understanding where it is supposed to be attached, the IIHS reported.

Here is top-tether installation guidance for most types of vehicles, provided by CR's car-seat experts:

Top-tether symbol.
Look for the top-tether symbol in your vehicle to locate tether anchors.

For All Forward-Facing Installations

  • The top-tether symbol identifies where top-tether anchors are in your vehicle. Look for them on the parcel shelf, seatback, or somewhere in the cargo area. Admittedly, the symbol might not be as easy to see in some cars as in others, but at least you’ll know what you’re looking for. 
  • Unfortunately, many people think the top tether should be used only when installing forward-facing seats with the lower anchors. The confusion may come from the LATCH acronym, which means Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children. In fact, the top tether should be used for all forward-facing installations, regardless of whether the seat is installed with the lower anchors or by using a seat belt.  
  • Always check your vehicle's owner's manual for instructions on how to attach the top tether for each rear-seating position.

Sedans Are (Usually) Easy

Sedans typically have some of the most visible and easy-to-use top-tether anchors.

Watch for these concerns:

  • It can be more difficult to route the top-tether strap beneath the head restraint in some sedans. Consider removing the head restraint if your vehicle allows it.
  • Top-tether anchors in some vehicles may be too close to the seatback to have enough space for the top-tether strap to be tightened fully. It may not be easy, but tighten it as much as you can. A slightly loose tether will still provide more safety benefits than not attaching it at all.
  • Some tether anchors may be hard to reach because they are set deeply back on the shelf. You may need to remove the head restraint to improve your access to the tether anchor. Be sure to replace the head restraint once you have attached and tightened the tether, or to safely stow it.

SUVs, Minivans, and Hatchbacks Can Be Challenging

For most SUVs and minivans, the top-tether anchors are located on the rear seatback and most are clearly labeled and easy to find. In some vehicles, though, they aren't easy to get to or to use, despite the amount of real estate available on the seatback. Watch for these concerns:

  • Some tether anchors are located very far down on the seatback or possibly under the seat. Don’t be surprised if you need to extend the top-tether strap to reach those.
  • Watch for specific instructions for how to route the tether strap around or over the head restraint, particularly if the head restraint is built into the seatback or is not adjustable. 
  • For some second-row seats (but more often the third row), the top-tether anchor can be located far behind the seat or even at the rear of the cargo area. You will need to walk around to the rear hatch to attach the tether to the anchor. Not only is this inconvenient but it also poses added challenges if you need to use the cargo space. Some parents give up on the tether strap because of this awkward installation. Select a seating position where the tether anchor is not located in the cargo area, if possible. 
  • Select vehicles require routing the strap behind the cargo cover or below a folding, or removable, portion of the rear floor or underneath the cargo area mats. These awkward locations may force you to access the anchor through the rear hatch.
  • Watch for cargo area tie-downs that can be mistaken for top-tether anchor points. Make sure the top-tether icon is present to ensure you have the right spot.

Pickup Trucks Are Tough

It’s hard to find robust and easy-to-access locations for the top-tether anchors in pickup trucks because of the trucks' shape and the fact that the rear seats butt up against the rear cabin wall. You’ll probably need to take a look at your truck’s owner’s manual for guidance to ensure that you’re using the tether anchor correctly.

There are three basic routing paths that you can encounter with pickup trucks. Each may present a challenge, but when approached methodically, you’ll be able to get a secure connection.

  • Many top-tether anchors are behind the rear seatback. You’ll need to tilt the seatback forward to reach the anchor, even as you’re holding the car seat in your hand. This also may mean that you’ll need to attach the tether and get it close to tight before returning the seatback to its original position because the adjuster may be out of your reach once the seat is back upright. Place your car seat on the adjacent seat while attaching the tether to help you manage this awkwardness.  
  • Most pickup trucks use loops at the top of the seatback, behind the head restraint, that function like typical metal tether anchors. To use these, thread the tether strap through the loop on the seat where your child will sit. Then attach the strap to the loop found on the next seat over.
  • The most complicated approach is found, thankfully, in only a small group of pickups. It positions the tether anchor low on the outboard side of the seat, close to the vehicle floor. You’ll need to make sure you’re routing the tether strap up through a guide behind the head restraint and then down to the anchor. Be aware that some top-tether straps may not be long enough to make this lengthy journey. If your strap isn't long enough, pick a different seat location rather than not using the top-tether anchor at all. 

We recommend that you test your car seat in your vehicle before using it with your child to ensure that you’re able to get a secure installation. If you are buying a new seat, make sure you can return it if it isn't compatible with your vehicle. Check for a car-seat check station near you to have certified technicians educate you on how to get a secure installation or to check your work.