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Winter Coats and Car Seat Safety: What Every Caregiver Should Know

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On April 22, 2015
Last modified:June 6, 2015


I was a brand new mom of a nearly two-month-old when I first learned how winter coats could possibly have a devastating affect on car-seat performance. I had gone into my pediatrician’s office so proud of the care I had taken to dress my winter-born baby warmly. It was one of the coldest winters on record in New England that year. My baby looked so incredibly dear in her warm, snuggly winter coat with the hooded pink bear ears. Imagine my disbelief when my pediatrician informed me of the potential danger winter coats can have on car seat safety.

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Dangerous? You have got to be kidding me. Her coat is keeping her safe. She is warm, she is protected from the cold, viruses, and all those nasty winter bugs. That was my initial reaction. In my mind, I was doing the best thing for my baby. All good mothers do that, I thought. Who cannot forget little Randy in A Christmas Story so overdressed for winter in his snowsuit that he could not put his arms down? That is what good mothers do, right? It took me some time to detach myself from the situation and admit that something I was doing out of good intentions could be a source of potential danger. Let me share with you what I learned about winter coats and car seat safety since that day.

What is coat compression? How can winter coats affect car seat safety?

There is a great deal of air trapped with the padding of winter coats and blankets. In an accident, the force of the impact causes the winter coat to compress, squeezing out all the air trapped inside the winter coat. To illustrate the idea, think of the commercials for those space saving bags that compress the air when packing coats, blankets, and pillows. There is a great deal of air trapped in those items. In an accident, the result is that the straps of the harness become much too slack and no longer secure your child as was intended by the car seat manufacturer. The harness is intended to stay close to your child’s body at all times. When the harness has slack, the child is at greater risk for sustaining injuries. In extreme cases, infants have been completely ejected from their car seat while the winter coat was found left still secured within the functioning clasps of the harness.

What does the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration say about winter coats and car seat safety?

Here is a quote from NHTSA, “…to keep your baby the safest, always remove bulky clothing or blankets before you place the child in the seat. Then, put the blanket or coat over the baby. You should never place anything thick underneath the baby, unless that item came with the car seat originally – which tells you it’s been tested by the manufacturer. When a child is wearing a thick coat, it’s hard to tell if you have a good harness fit, which is crucial. A coat can add a lot of slack, reducing the level of protection for your child in a crash.”

How can I check to see if my child’s winter coat is too bulky for his car seat?

Put the winter coat on your child and buckle him into the car seat as you normally would. Adjust the straps to fit your child. Remove your child from the seat and take off the coat. Without adjusting the straps, place your child in the seat and buckle. If you can fit more than two fingers under the harness at the shoulder bone, then the coat is unsafe for that car seat.

How can I keep my child warm in his car seat without his winter coat?

It does not have to be an either�⒬’or decision: either your child is safe and cold or he is at risk and warm. You can do many things to ensure your child is warm and cozy in his car seat.

* Heat the car up before taking the child out.

* For infants, several products are on the market that go over the car seat carrier and act as a blanket. However, it is important to be sure that the product you purchase meets Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. Some of these products that add material between the baby and the harness have come under scrutiny for being to bulky as well. The JJ Cole Original Bundle Me is an example of a product that meets safety standards.

* Harness your child in his car seat. Make use of that huge stash of blankets you got at the baby shower and tuck them around the child after he has been harnessed. Make sure the blanket does not get tucked under the child’s bottom or back.

* Use a polar fleece winter suit. Polar fleece is known for warmth without bulk. There are many out on the market and of varying price ranges. Last year, I purchased a suit from Old Navy’s sale rack for fewer than ten dollars. Other choices may be LL Bean Trail Model Fleece Coveralls or Hanna Andersson Cozy Fleece Warm Up Suit.

* Have your child wear his winter coat out to the car. In the car remove the coat, buckle the child in his car seat, and then slip the coat on backwards over his arms.

So as the arrogant, I-know-what-is-best-for-my-child, new-mom, I wanted to reject the advice of my pediatrician. It was hard for me to admit that I might be wrong about something as crucial as my child’s safety. However, I came to my senses, listened to my pediatrician and did my own legwork to research the topic of winter coats and car seat safety. I conceded that the warm, cute winter coat was not truly in my child’s best interests. I discovered that there are many safe alternatives to keeping my baby girl warm in her car seat without hindering the car seat’s performance.

This winter, if you have not already done so, take heed to the warnings of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Check your child’s coat for excess bulk and only use blankets overtop the harness of the seat. Be sure they do not interfere with how the car seat is designed to function. If they do, find an alternate way to keep your child warm in his car seat. In the event of an accident, you may be saving your precious cargo’s life.


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