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Babies at risk: Most new parents are doing car seats all wrong

New parents who carefully buckle their newborns in for the ride home from the hospital are almost all doing it wrong, a new study suggests.

A full 93 percent of parents leaving the hospital made at least one critical error when installing the car safety seat or positioning their infant in it, according to the study presented Friday at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics in San Diego.

“If you wanted to create the perfect storm for misuse, this would be it,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Benjamin Hoffman, a professor of pediatrics at the Doernbecher Hospital at the Oregon Health and Science University. “You take the most vulnerable person you could, a newborn, and the most vulnerable of caretakers, a family that has just had a baby, and you just take them to the door and just say good luck.”

Hoffman saw so many children coming back to his hospital with injuries that could have been prevented with proper car seat use that he actually became a car seat technician in his spare time to try to help teach parents the right way to secure their children.

For the new study, Hoffman and his colleagues randomly selected 267 mother-infant pairs who were in the hospital’s mother-baby unit between November 2013 and May 2014.

A certified child passenger safety technician watched as new mothers, or a designee, positioned the newborn in the car safety seat — and installed the car seat if it was not already done. After recording all their mistakes, the technician helped caregivers correct them before moms and babies left the hospital.

The most common errors included a harness that had been adjusted too loosely (68 percent), a retainer clip that was placed too low (33 percent), and incorrect harness slot (28 percent). Nearly 70 percent of the time there were errors in both the positioning of the infant and the installation of the seat.

Hoffman suggests parents check in with a car seat safety technician before their baby is born, but also offers these pointers:

  • Tighten the harness snugly enough so that you can’t pinch any slack between your fingers in the harness webbing
  • Make sure the chest clip is at the level of the infant’s armpit
  • In the rear-facing car seat the harness should come through the slot at or below the child’s shoulders
  • Make sure when you install the car seat that it’s tight with no more than an inch of play side-to-side and back-to-front
  • Make sure you adjust the car seat at the correct angle: If it’s too tight there’s a risk of the baby’s airway getting blocked and if it’s too reclined, it won’t protect the baby in a crash
  • Use either the seat belt or the lower anchors, but not both, to secure the car seat — unless the manual specifically says you can use both