Car seats and winter coats

by DaniGirl on December 31, 2007 · 22 comments

in Mothering without a licence

Glen from the Ottawa Start blog raised an issue earlier this month that has always bugged me.

Did you know that car seats are not safe when your child is wearing a bulky winter coat? Seriously.

I had just started poking around to find out if there has been any improvement in the safety ratings of those “cuddle bags” for the infant carriers (I used one for Simon and loved it) when Glen posted his experience. He e-mailed Dorel, the manufacturer of his daughter’s Safety First car seat, asking what they recommend and they suggested that the coat be removed before his daugter is strapped into her car seat.

Yah, right. I’m going to spend an hour getting my kids INTO their coats and whatnot, step out into the minus 20 degree wind, walk a dozen steps, and then strip the coat back off again so I can strap them into their car seats. And they will sit placidly with their coats covering them like blankets so they don’t freeze to death while the car warms up. And then we’ll do it all again in reverse when we get wherever it is we are going. Seriously?

CBC picked up on the story as well, and ran this article where Transport Canada confirms that bulky winter gear interferes with the safety specifications of the restraint belts.

I remember reading about this and agonizing over it when Tristan was a toddler, and I simply can’t believe there hasn’t been some sort of improvement to the design of the restraint system since then. It’s bad enough trying to adjust the harness belts during those transitional months when you switch from winter coat to rain gear and back again, but to actually have your car seat deemed unsafe for almost half the year?

Add this to the list of things that will be fixed when I’m elected Queen of the Universe. How do you deal with car seats and winter gear? (And for those of you who don’t have freezing temperatures, you don’t need to speak up today. With another 15 cm of snow in the forecast in an already record-breaking year, I don’t want to hear about places where you don’t need to wear a bulky winter coat!!)

{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Trixie December 31, 2007 at 10:33 am

I heard about this, too, and was freaked out. Seems like all we ever hear about kiddie car seats is that they don’t do much good: we don’t have them installed right, we don’t have them adjusted right, we don’t have the occupants dressed right and so on. It’s a miracle the seat hasn’t up and strangled anyone yet. I doubt they make baby versions of Sam’s winter outerwear system (it’s not actually called a “system,” but it should be), but that would do the trick. It’s basically a fall coat with a thinsulate winter lining that’s zipped in when it gets chilly and a bulky down-filled vest to use on the freezing days. He carries the vest to school for recess play but doesn’t wear it in the car. When he was wee, I remember using a “snowsuit” that looked like über-thick sleepers and then tucking quilts over him in the car. Did the trick.

2 suze December 31, 2007 at 10:47 am

Yikes. I had no idea about this!

However, according to the weather network it’s supposed to be 13C (no, i did not forget the minus sign) on Jan 9, so maybe we won’t be needing the bulky snowsuits much longer afterall…

Of course, it’s supposed to be -14C on Thursday. Stupid weather.

3 Tracey December 31, 2007 at 10:50 am

Yeah! I have access to your blog!

I am a terrible mother. I often run Anabel out to the car covered in her pink blanket–no coat!

4 Barbara December 31, 2007 at 11:08 am

When Reid was small, I went with a sweater and a blanket. Once she wanted to walk into daycare, though I put her in a coat and did/do up the straps really, really tight. When we travel long distances, I always take her out of her coat (for comfort as well as increased safety since we are travelling at higher speeds). I know that the issue is one of liability. Car seat manufacturers can’t logically be expected to be responsible for a snowsuit compressing in an accident, allowing for the harness to slip off of the child’s shoulders. Except that I’m sure that there are lawsuits that have attempted to do this and so we are told that outerwear is not safe.

I don’t think that anyone would ever suggest that it is better to skip the carseat if your child is wearing a coat but it is safer to take the coat off. It’s a combination of litigious society and having dealt with all of the big dangers to kids like polio, smallpox, industrial accidents. I think I’ll go and try and find that George Carlin bit about overprotected kids…

Happy New Year.

5 daysgoby December 31, 2007 at 11:33 am

I have wondered about that but put it down to the straps not being securely fastened when straining to hold a big, puffy jacket.

And if the straps are tightened properly, there isn’t room for them to wear a coat!

I can’t wait until R is big enough to use the regular seat belt. She’s on the edge now. I just feel safer using the car restraint system alone versus using the car restraint system holding back the safety harness for the kiddo.
(Because the car seat belt buckles through the back of her car seat – that last sentence was confusing!)

6 Sara December 31, 2007 at 12:02 pm

It’s not the fault of the carseat manufacturers – its the fault of the coats – and physics.

The test I’ve seen to try is this: Put your child in the seat wearing their coat. TIghten the straps as tight as you can. Now take them out, take off teh coat, and have them get back in.

The straps, where they are, with any spaces between the child’s body and the straps? That is how “well” strapped in the child is. That space, which is filled with down or polyfill when the coat is there, is the space your child’s body has to move to hit strap, because down and polyfill compress so much.

Generally, the poofier and puffier the coat, the less safe. A thick fleece compresses less under pressure, but the poof of a down coat compresses to almost nothing in the g-forces of a crash.

You can get “as safe as possible” by loosening the straps, putting the bulky-coated child in, and then torquing down the straps until the straps are litterally cutting through the pouf. At this point, of course, the child will be complaining. Vociferously, if the child is mine. I’ve managed to put my Squall-parka’d child in so tightly that the straps were still “safe enough” when the coat was off – but he wasn’t happy about it. On long trips we do actually go coatless.

The issue, actually, doesn’t go away when you switch to the car seat belts. It’s even an issue for adults wearing big coats. It’s just the physics of the coat creating a large space between the strap and your actual body.

7 Madeleine December 31, 2007 at 3:03 pm

I think this is the reason they market the quilted bags that go around the car seat. Yes, one more thing to buy. The idea is you dress the kid a little warmly, but not poufy (as Sara says) and then put the pouf outside the straps. Seems like a good idea for errands, too, since you can unzip the warm cover easily. I always feel bad for babies still in their warm jackets in the shopping cart at the grocery store.

8 Chantal December 31, 2007 at 5:26 pm

This topic makes me nuts. Same as you I wonder why the manufacturers haven’t come up with a decent solution to this. The “we warned you” answer just doesn’t cut it for me. We are bombarded with contradictions. Don’t let your car idle for more than three minutes and save the environment. Don’t put your kid in a winter jacket in their car seat (I am thinking a bigger kid, not an infant). 3 minutes isn’t long enough to get a car warm, allowing for you to put your kid in their seat sans jacket. I also read on a blog somewhere about car accident preparedness and it said, don’t go in your car without your jacket on, in case you are in an accident (so you don’t freeze to death quite as quickly while you are in that ditch). So we should keep our coats on but our children aren’t supposed to… What a crock. I think we all spend enough money on this stuff that the manufacturers owe us the decency to find a solution.

9 BeachMama December 31, 2007 at 9:01 pm

That’s a new one to me.

Just a quick stop to wish you a Happy New Year Dani!! Wishing you a wonderful 2008.

10 Valerie December 31, 2007 at 11:23 pm

I know they say the cuddle bags aren’t safe, but it seems to me that they’re safer than a bulky snowsuit. That was the route I went with my two, anyway. You can find something like a cuddlebag without the back – you put the baby in the seat, then slip it over the top (elastic all around, hole cut for face). Have you seen those? You could even stick an extra blanket inside (or on top). Not sure how cold the actual seat would get, though (on the back).

11 Rebecca December 31, 2007 at 11:31 pm

I had no idea. And here I thought I was doing great with the type of car seat I have my toddler in. Geez…

I *thought* it was good and tight, but now I wonder. His coat isn’t really bulky, it’s the type that is fitted but has material in it that keeps him good and warm… but it’s still bigger than a “light fleece” or no jacket at all. This is really frustrating.

12 Andrea January 1, 2008 at 8:26 am

Well, you know I already am none too impressed with carseat manufacturers, considering none of them make anything suitable for the bottom ten per cent of kids by height/weight. Frances is going to be in the forward-facing toddler seat until she’s eight, when legally she will no longer require anything and go straight to a seatbelt.

Carseats, I think, are really only officially “safe” for a minority of kids. You have to have the right seat in the right car in the right spot for a kid of the right height and weight wearing the right outfit.

My solution is the subway. What? You say there is no subway in Ottawa? Pity.

13 Miranda January 1, 2008 at 6:13 pm

The moms in my mother’s group have hotly debated this topic over the last few years. Some of their recommendations have included a handmade fleece cloak type thing that works for quick trips from house to car to daycare provider, blankets over a sweatered baby, and then various babywearing systems when not in the car.

Our climate outside Detroit is cold but not as cold as Ottawa so YMMV.

14 ali January 1, 2008 at 7:37 pm

boo. i hate hearing this news. i had NO clue…

15 chichimama January 1, 2008 at 8:14 pm

I alternate. Somedays I freak out and make them take it off, others I shrug and move on. It generally depends on how far we are going, which is not a valid critera I know, but if we are going 1/2 a mile to school at 15 miles an hour, the coat stays on, if we are driving 12 hours to Nana’s on the highway at 70 miles an hour, the coat comes off…

For the baby, I actually had a fabulous thing that went OVER the car seat and elasticized over the bucket part. I’ll see if I can find a link.

Here it is…

16 Anonymous January 1, 2008 at 11:45 pm

When my daughter was born, we were told we should see a certified car seat technician to ensure that our car seat was properly installed. I was amazed at how much I learned from them (including that elusive fact about winter jackets), and how poorly the installation instructions are written. To get a REALLY good installation on our second car seat (after the first was outgrown) actually required two people, one with a knee in the seat and one to haul on the seatbelt. You won’t see that in the instruction manual. That’s why I highly recommend that EVERY parent see a CERTIFIED car seat technician every time they get a new car seat – or even if they get a new car. (We found out, for example, that in our car there is no way to safely install a car seat in the oft-recommended middle position.)

Not using a winter jacket wasn’t a problem when Jade was an infant, and I think that since we live in Whitehorse, I can speak for most of the country. Popping her into the car seat and throwing some blankets on top before bringing the whole contraption outside was easy. Once we got into the kind of seat that stays in the car, I would pre-warm the seat with a hot water bottle in extreme conditions – but I still used the blankets. Now that she’s older, though, and we’re actually going to OUTSIDE destinations, the choice is getting more difficult…

I hadn’t heard about poofy jackets being hazardous for adults with regular seatbelts, though – that’s really interesting to know, Sara.

Another thing the car seat technician told me wasn’t safe is the toys that a lot of parents use to keep kids amused. Not just the ones that go on infant seat handles (because the handle should always be DOWN when it’s in the car), but also the ones that attach to windows or the rear of the seat facing the child. Because its one more thing for the child to hit or to become a projectile in the car.

Of course, most of us occasionally do things in the car that really aren’t safe: slouching down with the seat belt on your belly instead of across the hips, having glass containers (like drinks) in the vehicle, unsecured cargo in the main part of the car, playing the music too loud, passengers putting feet up on the dashboard on long drives….

17 nomotherearth January 2, 2008 at 7:00 am

The Boy wears his coat, unless we are going long distances. The Little Guy has a Kokkoon thingy from Bummies I think. It is very warm. I add to that a blanket, light sweater, mittens and hat.

18 cinnamon gurl January 2, 2008 at 10:46 am

I had no idea about this.

And, I remember being obsessed with trying to find a carseat clinic in my town and discovering there are none. I would have to drive up to an hour away to find out whether my carseat is correctly installed. The police station wouldn’t even help. That pissed me off. Now I just hope for the best.

19 Mac and Cheese January 2, 2008 at 4:36 pm

I cope by being an obsessive strap adjuster. It takes me a long time to get my daughter loaded up in her seat, but I won’t drive until I can’t get it any tighter when she is in her winter coat.

20 Javamom January 2, 2008 at 9:36 pm

One of the best inventions ever was those infant carseat liners. They not only cover the newborn from head to toe thereby giving you an opportunity to NOT have to dress her (or in your case him in a few weeks) in a million layers, they also allow the infant to self-feed from a bottle while you deal with the toddler. You just stick the baby in the seat, zip up, roll the top part of the liner around the bottle to hold it in place and then get on with going where you’re going. Or, in your case (and mine), deal with the toddler coats and hats and scarfs and boots and mittens and lost mittens, and have to pee now that the snowpants are on bladibla. So currently in minus 20 degree weather, I have an overdressed tot and an underdressed newborn, but neither is cold.

21 Jody January 3, 2008 at 4:06 pm

We lived in the Northeast when our children were babies and toddlers, and at first, we mostly solved the problem by (a) never leaving the house or (b) pretending it didn’t exist. Not optimal solutions, either of them. I did hear from people in 2001-2002 that fleece outerwear didn’t suffer the same “compression” issues and was a great alternative, if you were prepared to spend the big bucks for below-zero rated outfits.

During our 4 days in Minnesota at Christmas, 2 of them involving significant snowfall, I spent a fair amount of time thinking about how much harder our lives would be if we lived there full-time. Parenting in climates like that is NOT the same as parenting in places like NC. It’s plenty labor-intensive down here, don’t get me wrong, but add in the winter issues and … uff da.

22 kgirl January 4, 2008 at 2:02 pm

This is the kind of thing that I know about, but pretend I don’t, for the sake of my sanity.

The universe will be cool indeed when you are queen of it.

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