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Staying Warm AND Safe In The Car Seat

by Vancouver Island Car Seat Techs on October 9, 2013 · 0 comments

Do you live somewhere cold or rainy? If you’re in Canada, the answer to that is yes, at least for part of the year!  You’ve maybe heard that winter coats and infant bunting bags shouldn’t be worn in car seats — maybe you’ve even read it in your car seat manual (you read your manual right?).  Maybe you wonder how dangerous it really is, and how much of a difference it could possibly make to your child’s safety.  Hopefully this article will explain it—with pictures!—and give you some good ideas for how to keep your kids warm and safe in the car.

My semi-cooperative children are my models for these pictures. I had to bribe them, but it’s all in the name of education, and they decided afterwards they wanted to play North Pole in their snow suits anyway, so it all worked out. On Vancouver Island, it’s quite mild most of the winter and these winter coats only come out if we’re going up the mountain. The rest of the year they rarely wear more than a fleece or a raincoat. We have lived elsewhere in Canada where it is quite frosty with a significant wind chill and they wear the same thing there.

The experiment:

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1. Dress kids in regular clothing plus a winter coat (purple: MEC Toaster Parka), and a winter snowsuit (green: MEC Toaster Suit). Agree that fancy pink mask is a great accessory for such an outfit.

2. Buckle kids in their seats as normal: harness coming from at or above the shoulders for forward-facing kid (in the purple coat, age 5, 43lbs), and at or below the shoulders for rear facing kids (in the green snow suit, age 2.5, 33lbs). Pull all slack from harness around hips, and tighten so that I could not pinch any excess harness at the collarbone area (the pinch test).

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3.  Unbuckle, but don’t loosen harness.  Take snow suit and parka off (but only for a minute because now they want to play North Pole!). Put fuchsia fleece jackets on instead (MEC Yeti jackets—great weight and fit for in the car seat; Old Navy fleece is also great, as are any others that are warm but thin), which is what they usually wear. Re-buckle, but don’t tighten harness. See how loose the harness is (green snow suited child on the left; purple parka-ed child on the right):

Maybe that doesn’t look too bad to you—maybe not much looser than normal? Well it’s loose enough to do this, with little effort:

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In a crash the chest clip will break or slide down, at the same time that the crash forces cause the harness to compress the bulky snow suit much more than you ever could while tightening. The combination of these two things means that suddenly a large gap exists for the shoulders and arms to come free of the harness… and depending on the crash dynamics very possibly the rest of the body too. Partial ejection or full ejection causes severe injuries and is something we want to avoid at all times.

So how to keep warm and safe in colder areas? Don’t wear more than normal clothes plus a thin fleece layer. Warm up your vehicle if you want to. Have the kids wear the coat to the car, jump in, take it off, buckle up, cover back up with the coat on backwards or over them like a blanket. Or just use a blanket. That plus hat and mitts works well, and they can peel off layers as they warm up. Parents sometimes worry about breaking down or being in a crash and their child suffering hypothermia if they’re not wearing a coat. Definitely have layers with you, just not between the child and the harness. If your child is wearing a coat and is ejected because of it you have far more things to worry about injury-wise than hypothermia. Other ideas include making or buying a car seat poncho (I have no affiliation with any of these companies), or there’s a new car seat safe coat called the Cozywoggle that is now available.

There are some thin but warm coats out there that might be okay under the harness. To know for sure do this same test. Buckle up and tighten properly in regular clothes plus a thin fleece. Unbuckle but don’t adjust the harness. Put the test coat on, and if you can re-buckle without loosening then it’s just fine to use.

Booster riders and those in adult seat belts (including you!) can also improve their safety in the car by unzipping a coat to ensure the shoulder belt makes contact with the chest, and pulling a coat up off the lap to make sure the lap belt is sitting snugly against the upper thighs. This simple step, which takes only a few seconds, means less slack in the belt during a crash, and therefore fewer injuries.

What about infants and bunting bags? I don’t have an infant and couldn’t borrow one today, so I used my teaching doll instead. Her name is Clementine. She’s squishier than a real baby, so I can never do a proper ‘pinch test’ on her, so I’ve shown this using finger widths instead. Also in your car seat manual (if you didn’t read it before, how about now?) it will also say no aftermarket products. A bunting bag like these did not come with your car seat, so it’s aftermarket. Aftermarket products are unregulated, and are not crash tested with your seat, so using them means your child is the crash test dummy.

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I tried two different bunting bags for this part of the experiment. Both are commercially available but shall remain nameless. The cream/brown one is a ‘lite’ version and is quite thin, not much more than a t-shirt layer and a wind-proof layer. I wasn’t expecting bulk issues or compression issues with it (surprise!). I was expecting—and got—harness placement problems. Because bunting bags aren’t made to specifically fit a certain seat, the holes or slots may or may not line up properly. This one did cause the harness to roll on itself at the shoulder.

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The crotch buckle slot REALLY didn’t line up—it was about 2″ too far forward, so to fit the crotch buckle through I had to bunch up some of the fabric.

Next, I put the elastic stay-in-place loop around the back. It pulled the head area so far forward I could fit my hand down the back in between the head and the back of the car seat. That could cause airway issues in a young baby if it forced the chin to the chest. So I undid the loop, leaving nowhere to really put the excess fabric. It’s going to either end up on top of the baby’s head, or bunched up behind the head, again possibly causing airway issues.

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I could comfortably fit one finger under the harness with the bunting bag in place (remember she’s a doll so I can’t do a proper pinch test like on a real kid). Then I took the bunting bag out, didn’t adjust the harness at all, and tried again. 2.5 fingers easily fit in the same place. I admit this surprised me because this particular bunting bag is not thick or squishy at all. The amount of slack it caused must be due to the extra bulk bunching up at the crotch, and poorly positioning the harness.

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Next,  I tried the same thing with the much bulkier, squishier version. Poor crotch-buckle slit placement meant bunching again. On this one, the harness slot at the shoulder lined up well and didn’t cause any bunching or folding in that area. I tightened so I could comfortably fit one finger under the harness, then took the bunting bag out and tried again: 4 fingers.

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Even a little bit of slack in the harness can be enough for a baby to be partially or fully ejected once that chest clip slides down or breaks in a crash. Remember the narrow space that baby recently emerged from at birth? Babies are soft and squishy with flexible shoulders and softer bone structure, and can fit through narrow spaces. A tight harness that is properly positioned is essential for safety in the car.

Wait a second—what about those bunting bags that claim to be crash tested?! There are no crash test standards for aftermarket products. None. Maybe they did crash test their product, but what test dummies did they use? What seats did they use? What were the results? They could have thrown it against the wall and called it crash tested. Don’t trust that to mean anything.

Babies in infant seats are EASY to keep warm in winter. Dress them in regular clothing, and buckle them up. If you want a bit of extra warmth try a fleece sleeper maybe one size bigger than they usually wear. Fleece suits are great but usually not until at least 6 months, otherwise they’re too bulky and don’t fit well. Once the baby is harnessed, cover with blankets, use a shower cap style cover like this, or just a blanket over the handle to keep the wind or rain out. Don’t put anything extra between the baby and the harness.

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