Sunday, December 12, 2010

Keeping warm (and safe!) in winter

Now winter is here full-force, many people are wondering how to keep their children both safe and warm in the car.   I live in Alaska, and I don't have a garage OR an autostart on my car, so trust me I know cold!  As you may have heard, bulky coats and snow suits are not safe for use in the carseat, and here's why: 
From the Child Passenger Safety Technical encyclopedia:
"Thick, soft, and compressible material should not be placed behind or under the child, nor in between the child and the shoulder or lap straps. The primary concerns are that the padding may negatively affect the way the CR works in a crash and that blankets or inserts may interfere with proper harness routing. Soft foam padding or fluffy blankets will compress in a crash and leave the harness slack on the child, allowing excessive movement or even ejection. Bulky jackets and snowsuits can have the same effect, while "baby bags" without legs and blankets wrapped around the baby before harnessing do not allow for proper routing of the crotch strap."
From SeatBeltSafe:
"Clothing worn by children can present compression and harness routing problems. Bulky jackets and snowsuits can compress in a crash and leave the harness slack on a child, allowing excessive movement or even ejection. It is best to have children travel without coats, to put coats on backwards, or to add a blanket over the child after the harness has been buckled. Jackets that are worn the regular way should be no heavier than lightweight fleece fabric or be unfastened to allow contact between the child and the harness or vehicle belt. An option for an infant in an infant seat is a shower cap-style seat cover. This style of cover fits over the top of the infant seat, has an elastic band around the edge, and has no fabric behind or under the child."
From Transport Canada
"Some aftermarket products can cause safety issues ranging from inducing slack in the shoulder harness system to adding compressible material behind the child, which during a crash will allow for slackness in the harness system. The resulting slack in the harness may cause the child to be either partially or fully ejected from the restraint system, in the event of a crash or sudden stop... Bulky snowsuits can affect the harness with respect to additional compressibility. In addition, many snowsuits are made of very slippery material. This can affect the harness system should the chest clip of the restraint not be used properly. When using bulky winter clothing ensure that the harness system is tight, compressing the material to ensure a snug fit. Check with the car seat manufacturer for alternative methods of clothing during the winter."
Check your car seat's manual: it will have a section in the front warning against bulky clothing and aftermarket products (such as buntings, "Bundle Me" type bundle bags, Kidpotamus Snuzzlers, etc).  An example of such warnings:
From Baby Trend:
"Do Not dress your child in bulky clothing or other garments that will hinder the harness from being snug around your baby and properly latched between your child's legs."
From Chicco:
"NEVER use clothing or blankets that interfere with fastening or tightening the harness. An unsecured child could be ejected in a sudden stop or crash! To keep child warm, place a blanket over child and restraint AFTER you have properly secured child in harness.  DO NOT use any accessories, pads or products supplied by other manufacturers with this Child Restraint. Items not tested with this restraint could injure your child." 
From Evenflo:
"In cold weather, DO NOT dress the child in bulky clothing like snowsuits if the child is riding in a child restraint. Bulky coats/ snowsuits make it difficult to properly tighten the harness to the child, which may allow the child to be ejected from the restraint during a crash."
The following pictures illustrate why it's not safe to wear thick coats, jackets, or snow suits in the car seat.  They demonstrate how bulky clothing will compress in a crash--no matter how tight the straps are when you put the child in their seat.  In all these pictures, the straps were tight and the coats were compressed to the extent of my (human) ability.  In a crash, however, there is an extreme amount of energy being transferred to the car seat, and the coat or snowsuit is able to be compressed much more than we are able to do with our bare hands.  In effect, the coat or snowsuit will compress down to nothing, leaving slack in the harness.  This is what is demonstrated in these pictures--the amount of slack that will be introduced to the harness system in the event of a crash.  
A common question is "but are there cases of children actually being ejected from their car seat?"  The answer to that is yes, there certainly are.  In 2009, 24,474 people died in car crashes.  Of those, 6844 were under the age of 16, and of these, 909 were fully or partially ejected.  
With no further ado, here are the pictures!  
Here is Scarlett, my four year old, wearing her normal outdoor gear: snow bibs and her warm coat.

Straps are snug, and pass the pinch test: my fingers slide right off the strap and I cannot pinch a horizontal fold in the strap.

With the coat and bibs removed:

She is easily able to wriggle free.

Next I put Scarlett in just her coat, without the snow pants.
The straps are tightened so they pass the pinch test:
With the coat taken off, there is a dangerous amount of slack:
And she is not going to be safely restrained in a crash.

And finally here is my two year old little guy, all ready to go in his bibs and coat.
The straps are tightened securely and pass the pinch test:
With the coat and snow pants removed:
There is a large amount of slack in his harness that could easily allow him to be ejected in a crash.

A fellow car seat fanatic gave me permission to use these pictures of her little one, who is 6.5 months, 13.5 pounds, and 25 inches long:
All buckled in, ready to go.  This snowsuit looks pretty harmless, and is a good deal less puffy than many you see out there.
With the snowsuit removed:
Here's the little sweetie in her other ride (the Evenflo Symphony convertible seat):
Harness is nice and snug:
With the snowsuit removed:

So how do we keep them warm and safe?  
1. Fleece is your friend! For babies, a good-quality fleece one-piece outfit with a long-sleeved onesie or cotton pajamas is a good start. Fleece is very dense and very warm, and it doesn't compress in a crash.  I'm a big fan of fleece suits for infants and toddlers.
Carter's has many fleece jammies, which are great for teeny babies.  They also have fleece suits like this, which I loved for my kids:

I have also had good luck with Old Navy, as they frequently have fleece at good prices. 

Several brands, such as Columbia, The North Face, and REI make quality one-piece fleece buntings. Many even have the option of folding the cuff over to cover their hands and feet.

Here's my son modeling his (pink!) fleece suit:

2. Smart layers.  This is especially important for older kiddos, who don't have the option of snugly one-piece suits.  My kids wear cotton tights under fleece pants, and a long-sleeved shirt under a fleece jacket.  If you have wind, a nice thin windbreaker can safely go over fleece:
3. Shower-cap style covers. If you are using an infant seat, choose a shower-cap style cover for it, as these keep the wind and cold off your little one without introducing slack into the harness.  You can also tuck blankets over the baby, and the shower cap cover will keep them in place--but once the car warms up, don't forget to unzip the cover and loosen the blankets so baby doesn't get overheated!

Here is another teeny guy wearing warm clothing, with the shower cap style cover unzipped.  
And zipped up, ready to go!
4. Blankets over the harness.  This is a great option since the child can kick the blanket off when they are warm enough, which prevents them from getting overheated.  They work well in the infant seat...

...and in the convertible seat

5. The "backwards coat trick."  This involves buckling up the kiddo, and, you guessed it--putting their coat on backwards, over their harness.  Here is our model buckled in wearing her fleece and windbreaker:
After she's buckled, I tuck her warm winter coat around her, and she kicks it off after the car gets warm.
6. The Car Seat Poncho!  This product was invented by a fellow Child Passenger Safety Technician as an alternative to thick, puffy outerwear.  

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Happy Birthday!

Time to turn the car seat around, right?  Actually, it's best to hold off. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a new recommendation in March 2011 stating "Toddlers should remain rear-facing in a convertible car seat until they have reached the maximum height and weight recommended for the model, or at least the age of 2." And here's why:

Rear-facing is the safest way your child can ride.  In a crash, a rear-facing car seat will support the child's head, neck and spine, preventing injury.  In contrast, if the child is forward-facing, the child's upper body is restrained by the car seat's harness, but the energy of the crash is transfered to the child's head and neck, causing whiplash.  In an adult, whiplash is merely painful, but in a child, it can be deadly.  As we know, a child's head is much larger in proportion to the body than an adult's, and the child's vertebrae are still immature (the vertebrae do not become fully ossified--or hardened--until between 4 and six years of age).  Any amount of stretching of the spinal cord can be catastrophic for a young child--it can cause paralysis or death.

Here are some visuals on crash testing:
Here is a forward-facing child restraint:

And here is what happens if the child is rear-facing: 

Here is the story of Joel

Visit Joel's website for more information

Still have doubts?  Let's visit some frequently asked questions...

"But where do their legs go? Aren't they uncomfortable all squished up like that?  Wouldn't their legs get broken in a crash?"

As parents, we all worry about our children's comfort.  However, watch a young child as they sit on the floor.  Where are their legs?  Usually they are folded underneath, or out to the side, or "criss-cross applesauce".  Same is true in the car--as the child grows, so do their legs, and they either cross them in the seat, prop them up against the seat back, fold them or swing them over the side of the seat.  

As far as leg injuries go, they are very rare with a rear-facing child--there are actually more reports of injuries to forward-facing kids' legs!  

 "What if I am rear-ended?"

This is a good question.  However, statistically rear-end or rear-offset crashes are not nearly as common as frontal or frontal-offset impacts.  Here's a handy little picture that shows the exact numbers:
In addition to being less common than frontal-impact crashes, rear-impact crashes are usually at much lower rates of speed--generally, the rear-ended car is stopped or moving at a slow rate of speed, and the driver of the impacting car is usually braking.  

"I never had a car seat when I was a kid, and I turned out okay!"

This is a very common argument; however, it's a flawed one.  According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), the fatality rate for children under the age of 13 has declined from 79.5 per million in 1975 to 19.8 per million in 2009.  

Make sure to check out these sites for more information about extended rear facing!

Monday, November 29, 2010

So you're having a baby...

Congratulations!  You have a little bundle of joy on the way!  Now you are faced with the mile-long list of items you "need" for the wee one--and somewhere on that list is the car seat.  So you head out to Babies-R-Us and are faced with the seemingly endless line of carseats.  Some are basic models with plain covers and a fabulous price, and some are frilly with fancy names and a long list of impressive features, and an impressive price tag.  So which one do you pick?  If you're anything like me, they all look the same, so you pick the cutest cover and go on your merry way.  With my first child, the gender was a surprise, so we wanted something gender-neutral but not plain and ugly.  And of course we wanted the travel system, so we had the matching stroller and an endless possibility of easy navigation of zoos and malls and airports.  We ended up picking this one:
Cute, huh?  Well, turns out cuteness isn't everything: this particular model was recalled the week before my baby was born: there were reports that the straps would suddenly release.  At the time, I thought it was no big deal, since it didn't seem to be a problem with our seat, and, after all, I'd be careful.  A much bigger issue to me was the fact that the harness adjusted from the back (appropriately, this is called a "rear-adjust" seat) and it was very inconvenient to have to loosen the straps from the back, wrestle the baby into it, and then tighten from the back again.  The stroller also broke the one and only time I used it, so we moved to a convertible car seat (one that rear- and forward- faces) when Mali was 2 months old.

So, now that I have lived and learned (and, by the way, I am on baby #3 and have gone through an embarrassing number of car seats) I thought I would share a few things I have learned about infant seats:

#1.  Remember, the safest seat is the one that fits your vehicle, your child, and your budget and will be used correctly every time.  There is no magical seat that will be perfect for everybody.  Car seats all pass the same federal standards, so they are all considered to be equal in terms of safety.  

#2: Consider your vehicle when picking a car seat!  Most cars don't allow you to use the LATCH anchors if you are installing the car seat in the center of the backseat (check your car's manual to be sure!), so if you are planning on using that position, or if you have a car that is not equipped with LATCH anchors, make sure you get a car seat that is easy to install with the seatbelt.  It's also important to note that some car seats have different "rules" that can impact how they fit in your vehicle--for instance, the Baby Trend infant seats require the handle to be down while the car seat is in the car, and some Evenflo infant seats not only require that the handle be down in the car, but there also much be 1.5" of clearance between the car seat and the front vehicle seat--in a small car, this could be an issue.

#3: Decide what features are a must for you.  If you are attracted to the convenience of an infant seat and want to use it as long as possible, look for an infant seat with high weight limits: there are now several models on the market that have a weight limit of 30-35 pounds.  These seats also have taller shells, which means they can accommodate larger babies and are more likely to last you months longer than the seats with lower weight limits.  Are you expecting a preemie or a small newborn?  There are several seats with low bottom weight limits: some have 4 pound limits, and a few state they can be used "from birth", with no minimum weight requirement.  There are also many features like infant supports, harness covers, infinite adjust harness systems, and even "anti-rebound bars" to consider.  

#4. Play with the seats!  Take a doll with you, and practice buckling up "baby".  You'll quickly be able to judge which seats you like best, due to the adjustments, infant supports, and buckle system.  You can also practice carrying them around and feel the difference in the weights of the various seats.

#5:  Make sure you try them in your car!  After you have narrowed down your selection to a few seats, make sure they install well in your car.  If you have a Babies-R-Us near you, they allow you to take the seat to your car and practice installation.  Break out the manual and follow the installation steps diligently, and you'll have a feel for the overall ease of installation.  

#6: Register your seat.  Once you make your selection and purchase your child's car seat, make sure you register it.  It's really easy--a little postcard comes with the seat, usually attached to the harness.  Just fill out your name and address, and stick it in the mail.  This is how car seat manufacturers contact you in the event of a recall on your seat.

#7: Take your seat to a certified Child Passenger Safety Technician.  This is very important.  The nationwide rate of car seat mistakes or misuse is around 90%!  You can find a technician by following this link and entering your ZIP code.  

My top picks:

~Chicco Keyfit30. 4-30lbs rear-facing.  This seat is easy to install either with the seatbelt or with LATCH, fits tiny babies well, and is very user-friendly.  

~Safety1st Onboard Air. 4-35lbs rear-facing.  Here's a seat that fits even the tiniest babies well, yet will last for many months to come, as it has a nice tall shell.  It also has the "Air" technology that is designed to maximize side-impact protection (SIP).

~Graco Snugride35. 5-35lbs rear-facing.  This seat is user-friendly and widely available with many color options to chose from.  

~Combi Shuttle33. birth-33lbs rear-facing.  This seat is rated "from birth" with no stated weight limit, so it is usable for preemies or small newborns under the 5lb weight limit of other seats.  However, it might not fit all tiny babies height wise, as the bottom slots are slightly higher than the OnBoard and Keyfit.  

Happy shopping! 

Baby's First Ride

As new parents, you will find that the ride home from the hospital is one of the scariest events in your life.  You  have this new precious little life you are responsible for, and you are suddenly very aware of all the other cars speeding past you.  Make sure you transport your precious cargo safely!  

Here's a few general rules for properly buckling up baby:
#1: Make sure that the harness lies flat on baby, with no twists in the straps.

#2: For a rear-facing child, the straps need to be at or below the child's shoulder.

#3: Tighten up those straps!  It can be pretty daunting tightening up the straps on a brand-new baby, but keep in mind that if the car were to suddenly be upside down, those straps need to hold baby safely in the seat, and in order to do that, they need to be tight.  Make sure you pull all the slack from around the baby's thighs, and pull the harness adjuster gently to tighten.  The straps need to pass the "pinch test": try to pinch a horizontal fold in the strap where it crosses the baby's collarbone.  Your fingers should just slip off; if you can pinch any fold, you need to snug up the harness some more.

#4: Position the chest clip properly.  The chest clip needs to lie...well, on the baby's chest! ;)  The perfect spot is with the top of the chest clip right in line with baby's armpits.  The sternum is the strongest point on the infant's torso, and having the chest clip low on the belly can cause damage to abdominal organs in a crash.

#5:  Make sure the infant seat is at the correct angle.  Newborns have no head or neck control, and it's imperative that their car seats are reclined at the proper 45* angle.  If the infant seat is too upright, it can cause the baby's head to flop forward, with the baby's chin on her chest, cutting off the airway.  

#6. Use only what came in the box with the car seat--no aftermarket products.  Those super-fluffy infant positioners, strap covers, head positioners and 'bundle bags' are all tempting, but they are not considered safe for use with car seats.  The general rule is nothing between the car seat and the baby, or the baby and the straps.  Any additional bulk will compress in a crash, introducing slack into the harness and putting the baby at risk to be ejected from the seat.  

Here is my third baby, correctly buckled and ready to go!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Is baby too big for the infant car seat?

So baby's been here for a few months, and is growing like a weed. At some point you look at him and go, "hmmm, he's looking a little squished in his car seat!" and you have flashbacks to all the countless hours you spent researching and choosing the "perfect" seat, only to be faced with it again in just a few months!  Not to worry--let's see if it really is time to move to the next step.

So how do you know if baby has outgrown his infant seat?  
First, get an accurate weight, and make sure baby is still within the weight limits of his car seat.  However, that's not the only thing to consider.  It's also important to assess baby's height.  Car seats have a stated height limit, but don't panic if baby has gone over that limit without you realizing it.  Unlike the weight limit, the car seat's height limit is just a general guideline--it's not set in stone.  A pretty common height limit is 30 inches, but some infants have long outgrown the seat at that point, while others have months to go.  You want to be sure that there is at least an inch of hard shell above the baby's head.  This is a great visual on how to measure.

If baby is getting close to the top of his car seat, it's time to start shopping for the next step: a rear-facing convertible.

After The Infant Seat: the Convertible Car Seat

Once baby has outgrown the infant seat, or is getting too heavy for mom to schlep the infant seat around, it's time for the next step: the convertible seat.  A convertible seat is one that-you guessed it- converts from rear-facing to forward facing. There are many, many choices out there, so here's a simple guide to help you narrow it down.

#1. There is no one seat that will be perfect for everyone.  The right seat for you is one that fits your vehicle, your child, and your budget, and will be used correctly every time.  

#2: Keep your vehicle in mind.  Once again, installation will depend on your vehicle.  If you don't have LATCH, or are installing in a location that does not allow the use of LATCH, you'll need a seat that's easy to install with the seatbelt.  If you have a tiny vehicle, you'll want an appropriately sized seat.  

#3: Check the angle.  Once an infant has head control (which usually occurs around 4 months), he won't need the newborn recline angle.  This means you can install the convertible seat more upright, which gives front seat passengers more room.  Most convertibles allow installation between 30-45* from vertical.

#4: Chose a seat with high rear-facing weight limits.  Rear facing is the absolute safest way your child can ride, so it's best to keep him rear-facing as long as possible, well past infancy and into toddlerhood.  Most seats on the market have a rear-facing weight limit of 35 pounds, although several now allow the child to rear face to 40-45 pounds.  

#5: Decide what features you prefer.  With the huge array of convertible seats available, you will see many different features.  You will see  "alligator" style LATCH clips, which are designed for easier installation;  "wings" reported to maximize side-impact protection (SIP); rear-facing tethers and anti-rebound bars that stabilize the seat; infinite adjusting harnesses that allow for ease of use, and all sorts of different cover choices.  It's best to go to a big baby store and play with the different seats, and practice buckling baby and adjusting straps to see which seats you prefer.

#6: Try the seat in your car.  Some stores, like Babies-R-Us and some specialty baby stores, allow you to carry the display seats out to your vehicle to practice installing.  It's important to get a feel for the seats and see which ones fit best in your car, and are most user-friendly.  

#7: Take your new seat to a certified Child Passenger Safety Technician. A CPST can help you make a smooth transition from the infant seat to the convertible, and ensure that your car seat is installed and used correctly.  To find a technician near you, visit this link and enter your ZIP code.

My top pics: 
~The First Years True Fit (regular or Premier).  5-35lbs rear-facing, 20-65lbs forward facing.  Although this seat has a lower rear-facing weight limits than the others I will list, it has a very tall shell, so it will accommodate the tall & skinny kids very well.  The True Fit has built-in lockoffs for easier seatbelt installs.  This seat also has the unique feature of a head rest that removes for use with babies under 22lbs, so it takes up very little room in the car rear-facing, and fits newborns well.  After the baby reaches the 22 pound mark (or baby's head reaches a certain spot on the seat), the headrest goes back on, and baby can continue to rear-face at a more upright angle, saving room in the car.  The "Premier" version has an anti-rebound bar, a different recline system, and an easier-to-access adjustment strap.  This will last most children until they are a safe age to go into a booster (generally around 5-6 years of age).

~Cosco Scenera. 5-35lbs rear-facing (the Target exclusive has a rear-facing weight limit of 40 pounds!), 22-40lbs forward facing.  This is an excellent budget seat, but is outgrown earlier than the other seats I have listed here, as it's got shorter top straps, a shorter shell, and a lower weight limit.  However, it's fabulous as a travel or spare seat, or for a main seat if funds are tight, and parents understand they will need another harnessed seat before the child is ready for a booster.

~Safety 1st Onside Air. 5-40lbs rear-facing, 22-40 pounds.  This is basically a souped-up Scenera with a different base for an easier install, and more padding for a comfier ride, and is still very affordable.

~Graco My Ride 65. 5-40lbs rear-facing, 20-65lbs forward facing.  This seat is another that fits newborns well, as it has supportive infant padding and low bottom slots.  It comes in very cute colors and patterns, and has cupholders (always a hit with the kids!).  It's easy to install, and easy on the budget.  This will last most kids until a safe booster age, but the tall kids or ones with a long torso might need another harnessed seat after this is outgrown.

~Safety 1st Complete Air. 5-40lbs rear-facing, 22-50lbs forward facing.  This seat is a great option for tall kids, as it has the tallest shell on the market, and will accommodate those tall toddlers rear-facing.  It has a sliding harness system that allows for easy adjustment, "wings" that provide additional side-impact protection (SIP).  There are several different models, including one with a base that makes for an easier install and recline adjustment.

~Safety 1st Complete Air 65. 5-40lbs rear-facing, 22-65lbs forward facing.  This is the same seat as the above Complete Air, but with a higher forward-facing weight limit. 

~Britax line (Marathon70, Boulevard70).  5-40lbs rear-facing, 20-70lbs forward facing.  These seats are easy to install and easy to use with cute covers, and most kids are able to go from these seats to a booster.  They also feature built-in lockoffs for easy seatbelt installs, and a rear-facing tether.

~Sunshine Kids Radians. 5-40lb (or 45, depending on the model) rear-facing, 20-65lbs (or 80, depending on the model).  These seats are very narrow, which means they can squeeze into a tight 3-across situation, but are still roomy enough even for big kids.  The XTSL model also has the highest rear-facing weight limit on the market, and they all feature a rear-facing tether for extra stability.  However, these seats can be a tricky install in some cars since they take up a lot of room rear-facing, and they are only available online or in some specialty baby stores.

Happy shopping!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Ready to go Forward Facing?

When is your child ready to go forward facing?  The easy answer is "when she has outgrown her rear-facing car seat."  It's safest to keep your child rear-facing for as long as possible, to the limits of the car seat.  Most convertible car seats have rear-facing weight limits of 35 or 40 pounds, with a couple of models going to 45 pounds.  In addition to the weight limit of your seat, it's also important to take the child's height into consideration: your child needs one inch of hard shell above her head to remain safely rear-facing.  

Here is a handy guide to help judge how much room your child has left in his or her car seat.

So, if Junior is reaching the limits of his rear-facing convertible, the next step is forward-facing.  To make the switch, make sure to read through the car seat's user manual for instructions on how to install the seat forward facing.  You will need to move the seat's recline setting from rear-facing mode to forward-facing mode, and you will also need to route the LATCH belt or seatbelt through the forward-facing belt path.  Also be sure to move the straps up so that they are even with or above the child's shoulder.  You will also need to locate the top tether attachment in your vehicle (if your vehicle is older than 2000, it might not have one installed, but contact a local car dealership to get one installed).  The car seat's top tether reduces head excursion, which means less stress is put on your child's neck and spine, so be sure to use it whether you are using LATCH or seatbelt to install the seat!