I have a confession to make—I’m a bad car seat mom. Every morning when I put my kids in their seats, the following monologue runs through my head: “Why won’t he (my 14-month-old) fit in these *^%&$ straps? Oh it’s because he’s growing like crazy and has a jacket on. Wait—kids aren’t supposed to wear jackets in their car seats, right?” I pause for a second as a wave of parental guilt washes over me. “Does a fleece really count as a jacket anyway? Oh well, it’s cold and we’re already running late—I guess I’ll just squish him in there and adjust the straps tonight.”
Yeah, right. I’ve said that to myself daily for the last three weeks. Then it’s on to my 3-year-old daughter’s car seat: “Wait!—These straps seem too loose! But in order to fix them, I’d have to take the seat out and remember how to do it or find the blasted manual and then we’d really be late.” Cue another wave of guilt.
The thing is, I know car seats—and their correct installation and adjustments—are really important. While we tend to romanticize a time when kids were just thrown in the backseat, car seats save lives. According to the Centers for Disease Control, “car seat use reduces the risk of death to infants (aged <1 year) by 71 percent; and to toddlers (aged 1-4 years) by 54 percent.”
Current guidelines recommend that children be in a rear-facing car seat until age 2, in a forward-facing car seat until at least age 5, and in a booster seat until they are 57 inches tall. Since your average 11-year-old is 56 inches tall, that’s a lot of time in car seats.
But installing car seats correctly isn’t easy. A study from Oregon Health and Science University found that 93 percent of families made a critical error while positioning their newborn in their car seat or installing the seat in the car. Wow. When I read this statistic, I had to ask myself, “Is the problem with the parents or with the car seat design?”
Want to know if your child’s car seat is installed correctly? You can look on Web sites like The Car Seat Lady or on Safercar.gov and try to figure it out for yourself, but pretty much everyone recommends that you have a certified child passenger safety technician inspect your car seat. Therein lies the problem. How many families are going to do this? Will they do it for every new seat or child? And how many parents, like me, fret over whether they are adjusting the straps correctly or have dressed their child incorrectly (note: now that it’s cold, you may want to check out the Car Seat Lady’s explanation for why kids should not wear fluffy coats while in their car seats).
Even setting aside installation woes, car seats are a big pain for parents. How many times have I looked with sympathy at a bedraggled new mom struggling to lift one of those heavy infant seats with one arm? Every time your kid has a growth spurt, you have to adjust those annoying straps, which often requires taking the whole seat out of the car. And have you tried to tell a friend or family member who hasn’t had kids recently how to install a seat into their car so they can babysit? Watch for the look of either panic or pure boredom.
We’ve sent people to the moon and robots to Mars. Can’t we build a better car seat?
Last year the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab hosted a Breast Pump Hackathon with the goal of getting a bunch of smart and creative people together to “Make the Breast Pump Not Suck.” This was a fantastic idea, and several really promising prototypes came out of the event.
I propose that the car seat be next. There just has to be a way to make car seats less of a pain. After all, if we make car seats easier to use, won’t we be improving their ability to save lives?
Here is what my dream car seat would look like:
- Lighter—especially for infant seats (the baby weighs enough; NASA has to have some material that could improve the weight of these things)
- Straps that can be easily adjusted while your baby or toddler is actually in the seat (if there are current models that allow for this, please let me know)
- Straps that can be used even if your child is wearing a fluffy coat (I realize that this may defy the laws of physics, but we’re brainstorming here)
- Rear-facing car seats that don’t require moving the front seat forward in small cars (our Corolla feels like a clown car now)
- While I’m dreaming: a super wipeable, stain-proof fabric covering
- Futuristic crazy ideas: a car seat that converts into a wearable baby carrier so you can wear your sleeping infant; a car with built-in car seats that can fold out; a car seat that automatically adjusts itself (okay maybe that would be a little creepy).
Do you have suggestions for making a better car seat? Tell us!
Summer E. Allen is a freelance writer and editor.
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